Generation to generation

Local farmer shares family history on the land, visions of the future

Four generations of Roneys, circa 1956. John Roney, his brother Roy, sister Peggy and cousins Cathy and Wally (bottom row, left to right) continue to live and farm on land acquired by their pioneer ancestors.

Four generations of Roneys, circa 1956. John Roney, his brother Roy, sister Peggy and cousins Cathy and Wally (bottom row, left to right) continue to live and farm on land acquired by their pioneer ancestors.

Photo courtesy of John Roney

Most conversations about the history of agriculture in Butte County begin and end with John Bidwell. John Roney understands why this is the case, but offered a different perspective to about 20 history buffs who gathered at the Chico Museum last Saturday (Oct. 24) morning.

“Bidwell was an amazing guy, but most of you know his story, so the one I’m going to tell you today is a little bit different,” Roney, who owns and operates Roney Wines with his wife, Susan, said at the outset of his presentation. “It’s the rest of the story.”

Roney is uniquely qualified to tell that tale. He is a sixth generation local farmer, and currently grows wine grapes, almonds, walnuts and pistachios on land his great, great, great grandfather settled more than 160 years ago. He is descended from four different pioneer families who came to the area in Chico’s early days, and offered a look at the region’s agricultural history through their personal stories, complete with historic family photographs.

Roney’s third great grandfather, who was also named John, first came to Butte County in 1849 on a wagon train. The modern Roney explained his ancestor—who was 17 when he first arrived here—fell in love with the land, but didn’t stick around long for lack of another kind of love. He moved on, meeting and marrying a woman named Mary True in the Napa area before returning to Butte County in 1852. He settled along Pine Creek and the Sacramento River on land made available through the Homestead Act, which was passed that same year.

“Back then, a $12 filing fee got you 160 acres,” Roney said, explaining his ancestor initially chose the area to start a cattle ranch.

“The only real settlers here at the time were miners, so the main job of agriculture then was providing food for them,” Roney explained. “What the miners wanted was beef steak and flapjacks, so most of the early agriculture here was dedicated to raising cattle and growing wheat.

John Roney.

Photo by Ken Smith

“John had a part in getting the cattle industry started here,” Roney said, explaining that the valley was well suited for cattle in the winter, but not in the summer. This necessitated moving the herd to higher ground for summer, and for several generations the Roneys drove their cattle, on horseback, to family properties around Eagle Lake and the Clover and Harvey valleys. Roney participated in these drives as a boy, and shared a 50-year-old picture of him and other family members on a cattle drive.

Two other branches of Roney’s family tree, the Shannons and the Bennets, were primarily wheat farmers, and neighbors of the early Roneys. Another branch, the Uhl family, were pioneering almond farmers south of Chico just after the turn of the 20th century, when nut-bearing specialty crops began to take the hold they maintain today on the local landscape.

As the families intermarried, their farming ventures overlapped and evolved, and Roney’s presentation tracked these transitions through personal stories and pictures. He successfully added a human face to the advent of mechanization, for example, through pictures of his great grandfather Archie Bennett walking mule teams pulling plows, and later driving the family’s first Avery tractor.

The presentation also included some important historical tidbits. Roney says his father and uncle were the first farmers in the world to use almond husks to feed cattle, now a common practice, and also helped start the Chico Bean Growers Co-Op, which continues today as North Valley Ag Services.

At the end of his presentation, Roney fielded questions from the audience, including some about the future of the family farm. An audience member noted Roney has two daughters, and asked who might take the reins for the seventh generation.

“As far as our original homestead property, I’ve beaten it into the heads of my two kids that even if they don’t want to farm, or have husbands or even kids that want to farm, they can lease it out, but to keep the property., and keep it as ag land.

“We want to keep it that way for perpetuity,” he said. “There’s been a lot of pressure for us to develop, particularly along Highway 32. But our feeling is we want to keep the agricultural line, and the Greenline, right where it is. Chico can expand to the east if it needs to, where the soil isn’t as good.

“The Vina loam we’re growing on here is like no other soil in the world,” he said. “It’s the best soil you’ve ever seen.”