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Poppy paradise

Feb./Mar. 2012 California Bountiful magazine

State flower thrives on and around family's Antelope Valley ranch.



Farming on the edge of the desert in one of the windiest regions of California isn't for the faint of heart. But hay farmer and cattle rancher Terry Munz wouldn't have it any other way.

"I just like the lifestyle," he said. "Some of my happiest times are being out in the middle of nowhere baling hay early in the morning, with my dogs running around me trying to flush rabbits or chase mice."

Besides, not many people have a front-row seat for one of the most magnificent wildflower displays in the nation.


Hay farmer and cattle rancher Terry Munz is the fourth generation on Munz Ranch, which hugs the edges of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in rural Los Angeles County.

Each spring, Los Angeles residents take to the roads by the thousands to see what the fourth-generation farmer calls the "poppy park." More than half of the 1,700-acre Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve—near Lancaster, about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles—was once part of Munz Ranch. The family grazed cattle on the land, and Munz and his brothers rode horses through the area, gathering the herd.

In the 1970s, Munz's grandmother, father and uncle sold the land to the state of California and it was designated as a State Natural Reserve. The area offers the perfect combination of soils, rain and sun for the state flower to thrive. And in a good year, it provides the stunning sight of miles and miles of California poppies in bloom.

Munz Ranch is shaped around the poppy preserve, hugging the eastern, southern and western edges of the park. Poppies even cover the unplanted strips of land between Munz's fields.

"Sometimes if it's a weekend and there are flowers out, I can't get out of my driveway," he said. "It will be a traffic jam into the poppy park."

Growing up, Terry and Kathleen Munz's six children capitalized on the situation and set up a cooler with ice to sell sodas. Passing motorists loved to see the ranch and the collection of farm equipment and antique trucks accumulated over generations. Munz still uses the 1942 truck he learned to drive in, to haul water to his cattle. A 1936 International fuel truck still runs and has been included in many tourists' photos.


The spring bloom often turns the landscape a brilliant orange.

The iconic ranch scenery and the proximity to Los Angeles mean that Munz has been approached by film crews and photographers asking to shoot on the property. Munz Ranch has been the backdrop for fashion shoots, commercials, a German Harley-Davidson catalog and was the site nearly 20 years ago where rising star Matthew McConaughey was photographed for Vanity Fair magazine.

"We didn't know who he was," Munz said of the actor. "He was really nice. My girls were raising 4-H pigs and they used the pigs in a shot. He was in the back of one of my pickups with the pigs."

The film crews have gotten a taste of the area's notorious winds. Munz laughs as he recalls the travails of the crew assigned to film a television commercial.

"They actually built a barn on my property," he said. "In the commercial, BB King was supposed to fall through the roof of this barn as if they were beaming his music down. They spent a week building this two-sided barn up on the top of some of my farm ground. The day before they filmed, a front came through with a northwest wind and flattened their barn. I thought they were going to just give up on it, but they said, 'No, we're just going to rebuild it.' They spent another week rebuilding it."

For families planning to visit the California Poppy Preserve to see the wildflower display firsthand, Munz says March through April form the height of poppy season. The full bloom lasts only about a month, but the quantity is sometimes unexpected.

"I think during really rainy years, the grasses compete too much with the poppy plants and they don't do well," he said. "It takes a moderate rainfall year to get really good poppies."

And as someone whose family has lived in the area for more than 125 years, he would know.

His great-grandfather, John Munz, arrived in Palmdale in 1886 after emigrating from Switzerland. About 20 years later, John's sons Eli and Eric (Terry's grandfather) established Munz Ranch in its current location near Lancaster.

Today, Munz—who serves on the California Farm Bureau board of directors—grows oat and barley hay and raises a herd of Hereford and Hereford-Angus beef cattle. As a dryland farmer, he relies on rainfall to sustain his crops instead of irrigating.

Wind provides a constant challenge for Munz, and records show that his farm is one of the windiest locations in the Antelope Valley. Munz chalks it up to the fact that the valley's rim dips slightly to the southwest of the ranch, creating a funnel for moving air.

To ensure that the soil is preserved from wind erosion, Munz grows his crops in strips. Every other year, he plants a strip of grain or hay, leaves the next strip unplanted, plants a strip, leaves a strip unplanted, and so on, creating a striped pattern across his property. The next year he alternates.

The process has served the family ranch well, and just like the poppies, spring will find Munz in the fields of the Antelope Valley, savoring the great outdoors and enjoying his calling as a California farmer.

"In my high school years, I would go with a buddy and sit on the hills to the south of here overlooking the ranch, and I always dreamed of running a successful farm," he said.

State flower, dazzling sight

The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is native to areas from western Oregon to Baja California in Mexico. It was selected by the California State Floral Society to be the state flower in 1890, and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve opened about 80 years later.

To visit
The preserve—located north of Los Angeles—is open to visitors year-round. Park officials say wildflower blooms occur generally from mid-March through mid-May, and the peak viewing period is usually mid-April. Updated information on the bloom is available online and by phone: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627 or 661-724-1180. Nearby Lancaster hosts an annual California Poppy Festival, this year April 21–22. See www.poppyfestival.com for details.

To grow
California poppy seeds can be found in most gardening and home improvement stores. They are easy to grow and should be planted in the fall or early spring close to the surface (about 1/16-inch deep). The flowers do not require supplemental watering, but grow best in sandy soil that receives full sunlight.

Megan Alpers malpers@californiabountiful.com


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