Sweet smells of success
Organic endeavors keep historic Bayliss Ranch alive and thriving
Forty years ago, Donna Bayliss was sitting on the sofa in the home she shared with her new husband, staring out the window at the slowly rising sun.
Still feeling hazy as she sipped her coffee, Bayliss daydreamed of life thousands of miles away—of France, where the air was ripe with the sweet scents of lavender, lemon verbena, sweet Melissa, clary sage and rosemary, which grew at about the same latitude on the other side of the world as that of her home in Biggs.
Back then, Bayliss didn’t know much about farming, and after living for some time on the East Coast she yearned for the city lights and the bustle of people. Instead, she was a housewife and a kindergarten teacher whose husband was a third-generation Sacramento Valley farmer.
She was anything but prepared for the direction her life would take her in the years to come at a ranch that—thanks to her—has endured through impressive challenges.
“I didn’t know anything about farming,” said Bayliss, who took control of the Bayliss Ranch in 1983 after the unexpected death of her husband, who had fallen ill with pancreatitis. Now 63, she admitted the scenario was more than a little frightening at the time.
“I [felt], from the moment my husband died, and my son was a little boy, an overwhelming emotion and responsibility,” Bayliss said. “I didn’t want to be the female weak link.”
The pressure she felt resulted from inheriting a legendary farming dynasty that five Bayliss brothers started at the end of the Civil War, in 1865. The ranch was first located in Glenn County, in a town now named Bayliss, but moved to Biggs in the late 1880s after a series of floods destroyed the crops.
Bayliss’ transition from a young mother and kindergarten teacher to the head honcho at a major ranch was daunting, to say the least, especially in the wake of the agricultural crisis that struck in the early 1980s.
During those years, banks had overextended loans to farms and inflated land values. Bankers were lending to South and Central America at the same time, and when they couldn’t collect on the foreign debts, they went after the ones they could—in the agricultural community. Many farms fell from the strain, but a determined Bayliss managed to keep her ranch afloat.
“I quit baking cookies,” she said, laughing as she explained how she made that happen. “I sharpened the pencil [and] got serious about saving the ranch, which was on the verge of bankruptcy.”
Bayliss sustained the operation “through resourceful, creative thinking, and tenacity and luck,” and through her old dream, which she had almost forgotten.
In 1990, then-Gov. George Deukmejian established the California Organic Foods Act, creating the first-ever standard for organic food. Before that, Bayliss said, consumers could count only on the word of the producer that a product was “real.” It was a measure she “grabbed and seized.”
The 1,600-acre ranch went from producing mostly wheat, rice, prunes, peaches and walnuts to strictly rice and organic botanicals, a change that reduced the operation’s water use from 9 million to 1 million gallons per year, Bayliss proudly noted during a recent interview at her idyllic ranch.
These days, Bayliss is busy working with buyers from a niche market. This includes phone calls abroad to Europe at midnight or at sunrise, she said.
“I’m the matriarch of certified organic ingredients for the cosmetic industry,” said Bayliss. “I was tired of synthetics in a bottle. I want to smell the real thing, not a synthetic lab representation.”
During a ceremony last year to recognize the longevity and history of the ranch, A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, presented Bayliss and her son, Daniel, with a California Agricultural Heritage Club award, which honors farms, ranches, organizations and agri-businesses that have survived for at least a century.
When Bayliss isn’t running the farm or meeting with chemists from Davis, Chico, Purdue and Oregon universities, she is working on several projects that promote sustainability, including the installation of water-conservation systems that recapture rainwater. She also has plans to create her own biodynamic fuel made from plants.
In the future, Bayliss plans to open the ranch to the public for touring and events. Visitors, she said, feel transformed by the space and the power of botanical essence in the air. “It’s just alive, this habitat,” said Bayliss, who still manages to savor a few precious hours mixing new scent cocktails and strolling through her organic fields for inspiration.
She attributes her success to her attitude, and encourages others to use positive thinking as an energy resource to make things happen.
“I did daydream this, and I’m living it,” she said. “Use those powerful daydreams, if you dare.”