Ron McClure, dairyman, dies at 83

02/20/2014

Ronald McClure, a third-generation rancher from the oldest remaining dairying family on Point Reyes, who devoted his entire life to tending his herd, passed away last month. He was 83 years old.

Ron was the grandson of James McClure, a carpenter who came to America from Ireland in 1889. James worked on a number of ranches in the area before purchasing what is now known as G Ranch. 

The family was forced out after trying to fight Radio Corporation of America’s takeover of a portion of their land; Ron’s father, Jim, became a partner on a dairy at Pierce Ranch, but the family moved to I Ranch when Ron was six weeks old. They bought the land in 1939.

By the time Ron hit seventh grade he was already at work, milking cows at daybreak. There were machines, but Ron used his hands, too. In an interview with historian Dewey Livingston from 2009, the plainspoken man said he “used to run the machines and then hand stripped, [and] took the last of it. Got to be sure and get the last drop.” It was an early sign of the dairyman’s unbending work ethic.

During the 1930s, the dairy separated the milk, profiting from the cream while feeding the skim to pigs. But by the time Ron was a teenager his family was producing milk for the war; afterwards they upgraded the dairy and would thereafter sell milk. 

The McClures also farmed potatoes, carrots, beets, squash and turnips for themselves. (Ron did not care for turnips, though he would eat them in stews his mother made.) 

It was only just before World War II that the ranch installed electricity; before that, a gas generator powered lights and conveyor belts in the dairy. 

Ron’s son Bob said that more than any other McClure—before or after—Ron saw the world of dairying transform in a spectacular manner, with advances in technology and genetics. But he also saw it come full circle with the switch to organic, which meant foregoing the use of antibiotics. 

Ron attended a school at K Ranch, which also had no electricity, for six years and finished middle school at Inverness School. No high school diploma ever graced his wall; he went to Tomales High for two years, but never accumulated enough credits to finish his junior year, as his father needed him on the ranch full time. 

“I think he regretted that he didn’t do that, but it was a different time,” Bob said. “That was what you did. You’re a man, you go and milk the cows. But he wanted to make sure that we had a chance to do that.”

That’s not to say Ron longed for a different life. The ranch was his passion, and it was sometimes hard to get him to stop working. He might go months without a day off and he didn’t have much in the way of hobbies, though later in life he enjoyed decompressing with Judge Judy in the evening. 

Ron understood cows too well to do anything else. Indeed, you might say milk ran through his veins. He could roam around the land, eye a pregnant cow and know by her gait if she would give birth that night. He could identify a sick animal just by how she held her head. He refused to use cattle prods, believing it was no way to treat your herd, and your livelihood. 

In Mr. Livingston’s interview, Ron described how he could pick the best milk cows in a herd by the shape of the udders and bellies, and how he got into arguments with his high school teacher over how to identify the best animals for production.

In late 1951 Ron met his wife, Arlene, at a weekly dance in Cotati. Arlene didn’t want to go to the dance that night. “My girlfriend coaxed me to go,” she said, but once she arrived his smile drew her in. They started dating in November, but she lived in Sebastopol, a bit of a trek from the ranch. The commute left Ron with little time for sleep, and so they married in 1952 and she moved to the ranch.

Arlene said that when Ron first asked her what her father did, he had been pleased to learn that she too came from a ranching family, as she would understand the life of the man she was marrying. 

Ron became a partner in his father’s business in 1952 and took over completely in 1967. But he never owned the land; his father held it until selling it to the government in 1971. 

During Mr. Livingston’s interview, Ron recalled the uncertainty surrounding the park’s purchase of the ranches, which his father went to Washington to try to fight. “[W]e really didn’t know for sure what was going to happen,” he said, but added that after the change in ownership, not much changed. Fears that people would be suddenly roaming around pastures went unfulfilled, and Ron worked well with the new management. “[Y]ou kind of meet anybody halfway,” he said.

In 1984 he and Arlene, who never quite acclimated to the foggy peninsula and wore a shower cap to protect her hair, moved to Chileno Valley. But Ron commuted everyday and would sometimes sleep on the ranch, particularly when he was farming the silage, or feed. 

Ron hated to be idle; in fact, one of his favorite sayings—or “Ronaldisms,” as the family called them—was “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” Driving, especially steering the Caterpillar tractor he used to till feed, was a favorite part of the business, and one of the main ways he kept on the move. 

Ron didn’t mind exposing himself to the elements, and he would return from a day of farming with his face covered in dirt, only his eyes visible, Bob said. He eschewed protective gear, leaving his ears open to every decibel of the machinery; curiously, his hearing never suffered for it. He couldn’t get enough of driving in general, and was constantly the one who ran errands and picked up parts and supplies. He also shuttled cattle back and forth between the ranch and his Chileno Valley property when the Inverness pastures needed a rest. 

The dairy underwent a number of changes in Ron’s lifetime aside from the government’s purchase of the land. In the 1970s, after the market price more than doubled, Ron began to till the soil and grow his own silage; the dairy now grows over half its own feed. “That was probably a really good business decision,” Bob said. “He kind of had a knack of knowing where you need to be in the future.”

Bob instigated other changes after returning from college in San Luis Obispo and becoming a partner in the business. A nutritionist he brought on, whom he met in college, helped them significantly increase their milk yields. Bob says his father was open to change and that they had none of the tensions that sometimes spring up between fathers and sons. 

In 2009, Ron, ever humble, said of Bob’s upgrades, “I just kind of stood back and scratched my head sometimes, but it all worked out.” 

The ranch became certified organic in 2006. Ron, who grew up when the nascent mass production of penicillin was beginning to save people’s lives, worried about the shift. It was not only a financial gamble—they had to operate for a whole year as an organic dairy before they could charge organic prices—but he also feared turning away from antibiotics.

But, as Bob pointed out, the switch to organic represented a return to the dairy’s roots.

“We talked about that,” Bob said of his father. “He said, ‘I hate to give away the good medicine we’ve developed. But the consumer wants that; they want organic.’ I said, ‘Dad, you’ll be an expert on this because you remember before antibiotics.’ He goes, ‘That’s true.’”