Ranch guessing: Can a black-run agriculture academy end Sacramento County’s Boys Ranch curse?

Former juvenile detention camp could instead teach youth to farm

Seven years after budget cuts forced its closure, a onetime detention camp for delinquent boys may finally find a second life as an agribusiness training academy for underserved youth.

On July 25, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors granted conceptual approval to a group that wants to launch the Carson Creek Ranch Food and Agriculture Center on a site currently occupied by the defunct Boys Ranch.

Backed by the Africa USA International Chamber of Commerce, California Black Chamber of Commerce and California Black Agriculture Working Group, the “farm incubator” could “repurpose the center into a positive thing,” project manager Michael Harris told supervisors last month. “We’re looking at putting crops in the ground the first of the year, depending on the weather,” added Harris, who chairs the California Black Agriculture Working Group.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Nottoli, in whose district the ranch lies, said the agriculture center “presents a fairly grand opportunity.”

If that opportunity becomes reality, it would end a string of failed attempts to retool the former juvenile work camp. But much depends on whether the venture’s backers can secure enough private capital to begin agriculture production.

“Our team is exploring financial investors and educational institutions who will offer in-kind contributions, loans, and grants to make sure our final plans are supported,” Harris said in a follow-up email. Harris’ email also promised “a showcase of our Sacramento rural agricultural heritage.”

Opened in 1960, the Boys Ranch housed up to 120 boys, typically for six to 12 months, a staff report says. Intended to reintegrate troubled youth into society by offering them agricultural and life skills in a farm environment, the juvenile camp courted trouble over its 50-year history. In 1998, the Sacramento County grand jury reported that a lack of actual farmland and agricultural programs coincided with a third of the wards escaping work crew assignments. Jurors also chronicled unsanitary housing conditions, poor medical facilities, and dormitories and recreation rooms that lacked adequate fire sprinklers and smoke alarms.

The grand jury most recently targeted the Boys Ranch in 2014, but this time for its closure. The loss of the ranch and another detention center sapped the local juvenile court of options “to house and treat long-term offenders,” the jury reported.

The county has tried to offload the Boys Ranch before. In 2011, the county rejected a bid for a 20-plus year lease in the hopes of reviving the site as a juvenile detention facility, according to a staff report.

In 2014, two private prison corporations made separate offers to open a residential reentry facility for federal inmates on the site. Both bids, from a subsidiary of The GEO Group, Inc., and Corrections Corporation of America, were ultimately rejected due to community opposition.

The most recent proposal fizzled in 2015, when All About Equine Animal Rescue, Inc., a horse rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit, withdrew its bid after being unable to agree on lease terms with the county.

General Services Director Michael Morse expressed measured optimism that Carson Creek would finally break the Boys Ranch curse, telling SN&R that the county was doing its “due diligence … to ensure that Carson Creek FAC is formally established and has adequate financial backing in order to follow through.”

Morse said he expected a formal proposal by the end of September, but emphasized that this was only a guess.

Supervisors authorized staff to enter negotiations with the nonprofit, which is seeking a five-year lease. Morse’s department is looking to set a rent price that will offset some of the $490,000 the county has been paying annually to keep the property maintained and pay down its debt service.

Located southeast of suburban Rancho Cordova in the rural outpost of Sloughhouse, the camp covers 140 acres and is pocked with dorms, classrooms, a kitchen, gymnasium and other mothballed facilities. One of the program’s first milestones is to perform site clean-up and soil analysis.

Harris told supervisors his team is developing a STEM program with UC Davis and an urban agriculture one with Cosumnes River College.