California Cattlemen’s Association, Anthony (Tony) Toso said something that wouldn’t have made much sense before the infamous year of 2020.
“I’ll be CCA’s first virtual president,” Toso joked. A statement that’s improbable as social gatherings are likely to resume within his term, but one that’s not far from unbelievable after a year in which not a single CCA-hosted event was able to take place in-person and CCA leadership was only able to attend a few local association meetings before the onset of the pandemic in the United States.
In November 2018, when Toso became CCA’s first vice president, there was no way of knowing what he and immediate past president Mark Lacey would face over the next two years. It’s unlikely they predicted virtual meetings, facemasks, extremely volatile cattle markets, toilet paper shortages, plexiglass and the worst year of wildfires in California’s history would all be trending during the last year of their 2019-2020 terms—yet, they all were.
The year 2020 brought its lists of challenges for farmers and ranchers, and with it came no shortage of work and challenging situations for Lacey’s term as president and Toso’s tenure as first vice president.
“Having worked directly with Mark Lacey, I can tell you I personally am grateful for the efforts he put into his leadership term,” Toso said. “He was constantly reading up, investigating and thinking through policy issues, and not only did I enjoy working through some of those issues with him, but I was really inspired by his work ethic, thought process and commitment to do right by our membership. Those efforts I will use as motivation to push myself harder.”
Fitting with 2020 being a year of twists and turns, the week Toso was installed as CCA president wasn’t a breeze of emotions either. In addition to being installed as president, Toso’s week consisted of honoring his father with a memorial service, giving permission for his youngest daughter to be married, shipping three loads of cattle, hosting a fall branding (where his daughter got engaged) and providing an update on the CCA Fire Subcommittee at the Association’s first-ever virtual convention, all amid a global pandemic. The week’s magnitude demonstrates that balance is an act Toso has practiced long before serving with CCA. Toso says this ability was instilled by his father, Gilbert Toso.
Balance is something Toso has had to have from the start of his love for agriculture. Back in the hills of Mariposa County, behind the small, historic gold rush town of Hornitos and off a dirt road stretching for miles, Cotton Creek Ranch is located. Toso has been running cattle, raising a family and managing ranch life on this land for 30 years.
While Toso’s journey with Cotton Creek Ranch started in 1990, he can’t remember when he wasn’t interested in the lifestyle.
“Ranching and the cattle business has just always been a part of me,” Toso said.
His experience in the livestock world began at a young age. Raising bucket calves and 4-H projects as a kid led Toso to study agriculture in college and to continually expand his knowledge of the industry any way he could. While his parents were not involved in agriculture, his extended family was, and agriculture is part of his heritage.
“Because my immediate family was not in ranching, I had to learn from anyone who would teach me,” Toso said. “I studied it in school. I was constantly in auction barns watching, learning, asking questions. When opportunities to work came up, like at the auction barn or on a dairy, I took them and I’d soak it all up.”
After working to gain experience through milking and feeding at dairies, learning to be a ring man at an auction yard and even working for a vet without pay for a part of one summer, Toso graduated from California State University, Fresno, with a degree in animal science and agricultural business.
“Seems like all I ever wanted to learn about was anything cattle related,” Toso said. “But the real start was when I graduated college and my first job was feeding cattle at Harris Feeding in 1986 with Steve Scribner as my first boss.”
As Toso continued to build on his knowledge and experience of the cattle industry, he met his soon-to-be wife, Danette Wilkey, just a few years after graduating. The couple was married in 1989 and wasted no time in starting their first purebred cattle herd. Not long after getting married and going in the beef business, Cotton Creek Ranch came into Toso’s path with a for sale sign on it.
“At that time, I was just 26, and like many 26-year-olds, I was light on cash but could work,” Toso said. “My fatherin- law, Dick Wilkey, had seen the place for sale, and he was a few years from retiring and he had wanted to get a ranch like this for a long time. We were both really interested in being here, and so he and I made an agreement to work toward being 50/50 partners.”
From there, “the rest was history,” Toso says. In 1990, he and his wife Danette, along with her parents, moved to Cotton Creek Ranch and began the partnership that continues to grow three decades later.
“I’m not telling anyone who is in the cattle business anything new when I say that it’s not easy,” Toso said. “It seems like it is always a work in progress, and I’m sure others feel the same way.”
Toso and Wilkey have been partners of Cotton Creek Ranch since 1990.
As Toso and Wilkey continue to expand and work together, they have been intentional about their decisions and learning what works best for their cattle operation along the way. The introduction of various breeds of cattle in their herd is one example. From starting with a mix of purebred Brahman and commercial cows to introducing more Angus genetics to recognizing the value of SimAngus bulls in their herd, the two have continually evaluated what works best for the operation.
“…as with any investment the cattle have to carry their own weight,” Toso said. “Feed, health program, genetics and more are considered and evaluated, and I also keep records on individual cows so we can have a better handle on culling and selection.”
In addition to the cow-calf program, Toso has immersed himself in other sectors of the industry over the years. In conjunction with his friend Craig Uden, Toso feeds cattle each year in Nebraska at Darr Feedlot. This year, the ranch has also started up with stockers again.
“Performance, gain, health and overall quality are evaluated on our stocker calves when we go back to restocking for the next year,” Toso said. “But we also look at value versus cost, and there is a difference. The leastcost path is not always the best, especially with genetics, so we look pretty hard at what we are getting for the dollars spent.”
Toso says he believes the principles he and his fatherin- law have implemented in the business are vital to the ranch’s continued growth and sustainability. In addition to the strategic program, working as a team to run the ranch has been essential to its longevity as Toso also balances his time as a successful agricultural appraiser. In 2018, Toso was the recipient of the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers’ prestigious Chapter Service Award. Last year, he was also honored with the California Chapter’s Ag Appraiser of the Year award for 2020.
“Being my father-in-law and I are partnered on the ranch, and he is on the ranch every day, he keeps an eye on everything,” Toso said. “When there is more work, branding, shipping, preg checks, we team up and get it done.”
In 2009, after years of experience appraising cattle, equipment and eventually real estate, obtaining a general certified appraisal license and earning his Accredited Rural Appraiser designation with the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, Toso joined another partnership—Edwards, Lien & Toso, Inc. Alongside his partners, Randy Edwards and Jeff Lien, Toso is currently chief financial officer for the company made up of agricultural appraisers and brokers.
On top of balancing the ranch and a successful appraising career, Toso has made it a point to serve organizations across sectors of the industry from cattle ranching to appraising to all of agriculture through leadership with the California Farm Bureau Federation.
It was about 20 years ago, when he got his start serving the cattle industry after he was recruited for the Merced-Mariposa Cattlemen’s Association’s board by Stanislaus County rancher David Medeiros.
“I really liked the idea of giving back and working with fellow ranchers to protect the industry,” Toso said. “It’s important for the grassroots to play a role in their future and I saw this as an opportunity to help and be involved with something I really loved doing.”
By dedicating his time to the local cattlemen’s association, Toso said he valued the feeling of helping people who shared a common love of the cattle business and recognized how important the leadership is to ranching families. Now serving as CCA President, Toso continues to take on this responsibility as he carries on the legacy of leading the Association, representing all of California’s cattle industry sectors.
“CCA has been the workhorse for the California cattle industry now for over a century with a stellar track record of protecting ranchers and ranching interests, and being their advocate,” Toso said. “We have worked very hard in that role as an organization, and I want to build on that record of strength and leadership that has come before me.”
Having led CCA’s Fire Subcommittee during his term as CCA first vice president, fire is one issue Toso has already worked on extensively through his leadership with CCA. After meeting regularly over the past two years, establishing the association’s fire priorities for the 2021- 2022 legislative session ahead of its commencement is a vital result of the subcommittee’s work under Toso in union with CCA staff.
“CCA [continues to] put maximum effort into wildfire and also will continue promoting grazing as a means to help in the mitigation of wildfire risk and in fire fuel load reductions,” Toso said.
Toso is well-versed in fire policy and the wildfire issues impacting the state, not just through his time as chair of the subcommittee, but through a personal experience of having a wildfire come through Cotton Creek Ranch and reach within feet of his family’s home.
From the Detwiler Fire in July 2017, Toso knows firsthand what it feels like to see the smoke grow from afar, move cattle to safety and watch the CAL FIRE crews arrive as flames make their way to the ranch. He also is well aware of the problems that arise for ranchers during wildfires, such as gaining access to roads that lead to livestock. Toso believes that had he not been home when the Detwiler Fire started, it’s unlikely he would have been able to gain access to his property.
Anthony Stornetta, San Luis Obispo County rancher and battalion chief for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department will continue the work of the CCA Fire Subcommittee Chair through Toso’s presidency. As Stornetta leads the charge on fire, the subcommittee will Toso with keep striving for improvement on the access issues ranchers face amid fires on their property and grazing lands. The group is also continuing to work on various projects to ensure members have the needed resources to prepare for fire, handle a fire on their property and recover in post-fire situations.
In addition to meeting with membership—even in virtual settings if needed—communicating with members and making educational resources available, not only on the subject of fire, is something Toso wants to expand during his presidency.
“With the COVID situation, it has become very difficult to get out and interact with our membership, and I want to do our very best to bring our members the information they need to help them be successful,” Toso said. “We will not only use our current media outlets to inform members, but we will also now look at podcasts, social media work, YouTube videos, webinars and the like to get information out to our members regarding cattle industry issues.”
While making progress on fire policy and keeping CCA members informed are two of Toso’s priorities for the term, immediate past president Lacey recognizes other areas of strength the new president brings as well.
“Tony is a grassroots producer who is passionate about livestock and beef production, and cares deeply about issues that impact cattle producers,” Lacey said. “As a bonus, Tony brings a wealth of experience from his land appraisal business, which will be an asset to CCA regarding the Governor’s “30 by ’30” initiative, as well as potential land use issues related to Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) implementation.”
While Toso’s genuine interest and knowledge of the business are critical, his dedication to leadership isn’t all for the love of cattle.
“I really enjoy the people, the stories, the laughs and the salt of the earth character of people who carry on a tradition or way of life that transcends generations,” Toso said. “But the thing that really hits home for me is the family part and seeing other families and their kids being a part of the ranching community.”
Toso with his daughters, Alyssa and Gianna
For Toso, the hard work, long days and time spent serving the ranching community is for his wife Danette, daughters Gianna and Alyssa, and the hardworking people in this industry who came before him.
“We work very hard at the cattle we produce, but having my kids working alongside of my father-in-law and me is just the best,” Toso said. “To have that pride in your family and what you are producing to help feed people – it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
It’s this positive mindset that Toso’s daughter, Alyssa (Toso) Haines knows will serve her dad well as he takes on the golden opportunity to lead as CCA president through 2022.
“I think that as president of California Cattlemen’s, my dad will be an exceptional leader because of his passion for the cattle industry and his love for agriculture,” Haines said. “There is a lot to look forward to over the next two years, and we cannot wait to see what the future holds for him!”