By Kate Daly Special to the Almanac
"The jewel of Silicon Valley" is how Doug Galen described Webb Ranch to the crowd assembled for a groundbreaking ceremony at the rustic site in Portola Valley on a sunny day at the end of March.
The family-run business has been operating on land leased from Stanford since 1922. The 236-plus acres straddling Interstate 280 on the northern side of Alpine Road might look like a throwback in time, but they are teeming with activity, and about to get busier.
Mr. Galen is chairman of the board of Jasper Ridge Farm, a nonprofit that is sub-leasing 3.5 flat acres at Webb Ranch to build a new home for its programs. The nonprofit enables children facing life-threatening illnesses, stressful family situations, or living with special needs to find comfort and joy in the company of gentle farmyard animals. There are also programs for adults, including veterans.
Farm equipment and horse trailers were recently relocated to another part of the ranch to make way for a new barn, storage shed, turnouts and paddock for 17 new residents: miniature horses, goats, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and a cat.
The bulk of the construction is slated to be done by early summer. The hope is the new space will enable the programs to run year-round and reach more than the 1,500 people currently served each year.
Wendy Mattes was a Webb Ranch riding instructor when she taught a student suffering from a brain tumor. That experience led Mrs. Mattes to co-found Riley's Place in Woodside in 2009.
Over a year ago the organization changed its name to Jasper Ridge Farm, applied for building permits, and moved to temporary quarters in Gilroy. The farm visits have been on hiatus but the animals continue to travel to interact with people at places such as Ronald McDonald House at Stanford and Haven Family House in Menlo Park.
Plans are to ramp up the HorseBuddies part of the program at Webb Ranch. For a couple of years, volunteers and Webb Ranch riding instructors have been working with students on the ranch's lesson horses. Groups of veterans were added last year.
After fundraising is complete, a new covered arena is planned for the corner closest to the large barn that Webb Ranch President Tom Hubbard calls a "historical building," based on pictures from the 1870s. Deemed unsafe a year ago, the swaybacked barn is fenced off and boarded up, waiting for a decision from Stanford about possible next steps.
June will bring a new wave of children to Webb Ranch for summer riding camps. The 13 week-long sessions are so popular most of them are already sold out.
"This summer it's unclear what we're going to do with water," Mr. Hubbard said.
Last year Webb Ranch's U-Pick berry season started in June, but due to the drought, he is predicting an earlier start, probably in mid-May. The public is invited to come on weekends to pick various varieties and enjoy pony rides, a jumpy house and picnic area until July.
This summer corn, tomatoes and the rest of the organic produce grown at the ranch will once again be sold at Bianchini's, Roberts market, Sigona's, and the Portola Valley Farmers' Market. The old fruit stand on Alpine will remain closed until September, when pumpkins will be sold there. It morphs into a Christmas tree lot around Thanksgiving.
Three generations of the Webb family live on the ranch, including Stanley Webb, the founder's youngest son. Mr. Webb's daughter, Lyndal, is married to Mr. Hubbard. They raised their daughters there and one has stayed: Summer Hensley, runs the riding school and lives on the ranch with her husband, Nate, the stable manager.
Depending on the season, 20 to 30 employees work the farm (they were unionized in the 1990s) and 10 to 15 people teach riding lessons. Mr. Hubbard says 80 percent of the employees live in doublewide trailers and a dorm near the former fruit stand.
Including the Stanford polo team as well as privately boarded and lesson horses, there are 250 horses spread out in pastures, paddocks and barns at Webb. They generate a steady demand for upkeep.
In March ranch workers replaced the ground layer with new footing in the arenas. They also moved around the mature manure piles to fertilize the fields.
"We are constantly working on the business, on what can we afford to upgrade," Mr. Hubbard says. "We are the mom and pop horse stable, not where you watch your trainer ride your horse."
Boarders pay monthly anywhere from $450 to keep a horse in pasture to $740 for a stall. Cynthia Brownlee of San Francisco has boarded two horses there on and off for eight years and says what she likes about Webb Ranch is "its really nice kind of friendly, low-key family environment."
"It's a wonderful place," says Liz Carey, who for seven years has been driving from Campbell to ride her horse there. She still marvels at how she went to Stanford and didn't even know Webb Ranch existed.
Before he came to Webb Ranch, Mr. Hubbard worked for PG&E and had over an hour commute to the East Bay. Now with his short walk to the ranch office, he says: "I feel lucky being here in the middle of the Peninsula. It's obviously fantastic to be able to live and work here."
He acknowledges the extra perk of "what you're getting paid for in addition to the dollars" with a nod to the bucolic backdrop that surrounds him and his family every day.