Bruce Yerkovich is an Earth Changer.
From a farm, to science, to human genomics, via academia and corporate agricultural biotechnology, inter-connectedness of conscious energy and ecosystem and is as much sustainability as wilderness and cultural exchange for the founder of Europe’s cowboy frontier, Linden Tree Retreat and Ranch. Here's his story:
I was born in Croatia, several hours drive away from Linden Tree Retreat and Ranch where I live now. As a kid, I grew up on a small farm, always surrounded by nature, so it was really deeply embedded into me - my earliest friends were horses, grasshoppers and other animals... As a natural scientist, I went onto to academically study Molecular Biology which later took me to a doctorate in Quantum Biophysics [definition: an interdisciplinary science that uses the methods of quantum physics and physical chemistry to study biological systems] in the US, where I continued working in academia followed by the corporate world in bioinformatics and human genomics.
Whilst much of life revolved around work in cities like Boston, Seattle, San Diego and New York. I did spend time outdoors, hiking, climbing, biking and sometimes horse riding. US style ranches were certainly a model for Linden Tree, because whilst we have farms with guesthouses, we don’t have ranches in Croatia – or indeed throughout Europe, even though the concept originated from Spain. Cowboy culture is popular here, but as far as I know we’re the only genuine working guest ranch, or place that joins all the dots, in terms of land, ranch structures, horsemanship, raising grazing livestock and wildlife.
However, I was working for Monsanto, and came to understand there was no way I could make any difference to the world doing what I was doing. When things don’t work, I accept they don’t work, so I wasn’t going to stay there and fight for alternative systems.
I left the company and took a few years to travel the world and spend time with indigenous people, and really study to see in what way I could actually make a difference. I was looking for land in different parts of the United States, in a protected area, whether national park or nature reserve designation, and was close to purchasing a ranch in Montana. By chance I had to come back to Croatia for a family event, and this place came up, around 2005. So I returned to Croatia and founded Linden Tree Retreat & Ranch in 2008, born of a vision to build a sustainable wilderness retreat that demonstrates and respects the land, people and wildlife.
Our land is 100 acres in the Northern Velebit mountain and National Park, an UNESCO protected pristine wilderness in Croatia, recognised in 1978 for its biodiversity and richness of the natural phenomena. It stretches, along with another National Park, The Velebit Nature Park, over 2200 square kilometres and is the largest single protected reach of land in Croatia, and part of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
National Parks may have ‘inholding’ private land, because land was private before being recognised in a Park area. This deeded land can remain private, but if it comes up for sale, the National Park has first right of refusal to buy, thereafter open to private purchase.
That was the process followed in Linden Tree’s case, and so I was able to buy. Of course it brings certain responsibilities on management and development, but with the awareness as active stewards of the land that we’re going to conserve and protect. We work with Rewilding Europe, in developing sustainable tourism practices in the area. We also collaborated with the nearby University of Zadar, involving all relevant local and national stakeholders, on an ongoing grazing experiment with European bison, an essential component of the natural ecosystem and a valuable attraction for nature tourists in the region.
Our first guests arrived in July 2013 and the business grows about 30% a year. So at first it was very intimate with 5-6-7 guests around the table, and these days we have more. In 2017 our capacity at any one time was 36, in 2018 it will be nearly 50 guests. That said, we try to keep it under 30 if it’s individual bookings, more is OK if it’s a group. Of course working with people and customer service in hospitality isn’t always easy, but I asked for this and I got it! It’s not like we’re a mass market ‘fly-and-flop’.
I made a commitment to make a difference in the world. To do things sustainably means doing the right thing, not always the easy, most profitable or acceptable thing; you can’t hide away and do that.
Of course people like to make suggestions, especially if they feel close to you and engaged with the place, and I listen to those and take it as a compliment they feel they can speak their minds and feel involved.
Our guests already have a good idea of what they are coming to because we really make an effort to make sure we disclose everything before they arrive. So for example, there may be flies, because we have horses. We’re always on point about the message we send out, whether website or public appearances, to be very transparent because the words we use do attract certain people and the guests who come are keen to know more. We are aware that in our interactions we carry the energy of the place, and that the staff have a certain demeanour which is a reflection of our values, and that’s very powerful.
In 2017, we had guests from 131 different countries. It’s quite incredible given that we’re not even open all year-round. In the summer, guests can horse ride – about 75% do - and we offer retreats. And whilst it’s possible in the winter, with snow, logistics can get difficult and it’s not hiking weather. Even just short days, cold and damp can make people miserable, which they can do at home - we don’t want people to be miserable when they are here! If that absorbs great energy from the staff, it’s heavy.
The bottom of our balance sheet isn’t dollar signs, it’s about the energy being *plus*, net positive.
So we prefer to close in the winter which also gives us a chance to do our planning and any maintenance and expansion we need. So for example in winter 2017-18 and we’re building tree tents! We’ll reopen in mid-May on a 4 month schedule until mid-September. Of course we’re conscious of our sustainability and try to reduce use of energy, water and waste, and reuse etc. and publish anecdotal evidence on our website and social media.
We also involve guests in some activities, such as measuring crayfish in the creek – we’ve waterlogged land from the river, to return it to the state it used to be about 30 years ago, with a lake and wetland. Unfortunately it does mean insects like it there too! But it’s been an amazing rebound of aquatic life, and with insects and trout come frogs and birds, magical in the evening when they start to sing! In the spring time it dries up and it’s a beautiful meadow. We have the great benefit of neighbours who have been here decades, and remember how it used to be, to help us recreate that.
It wasn’t always easy, because when I first arrived I was a curiosity to the locals, not being originally from the area. The first year, there was mistrust of my ranch plans which they thought were stories and that I actually had other secret plans. Then when I didn’t, they kind of ignored me for a couple of years, because now they believed me but thought it wasn’t going to work. Then when we opened and they started seeing cars come with foreign license plates, and the number of horses growing, they realised, maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all! So they became curious again.
We allowed the community their own comfort level for engagement with us. I didn’t push them to collaborate or sell. Then, 3 or 4 years ago, they started coming over on their own, asking about what we were doing, if they could provide goods or services like fresh dairy products, or help with building. We never bargained and we never set a price, but let them name their fair price. I won’t accept ridiculous offers, but the only requirement we have is on quality. So if they fail to deliver and the quality is not good enough for the price they asked and we paid, we don’t buy again from them. In the last 2 years as we’ve been growing more, so we’re employing more local people, and we’re now the second largest employer in the broader valley.
So the view of us now is as very valuable members of the community. People want to work here, which means we have an easier time now getting local staff. We invest in people, and organise all kinds of conservation education opportunities for the community as well; all our activities have conservation of the area at core.
Many activities are day-long, but next year we’re also running a new expedition trip by horseback that’s a week-long trip to a part of the mountain that is unexplored, and has a lot of different water courses and wildlife, some of which I’ve not even ever seen here, heavily influenced by different microclimate. Our land is 100 acres, so we go well beyond that into the National Park, over 100km (70 miles). We have some loyal guests very keen to join and I’m really looking forward to it!
My life is designed around making me better. I refuse to say ‘man’, ‘human’ or even ‘person’, because I extend beyond the body. I’m just an energy. I’m like a sculptor, with a hammer and a chisel, and you chip away piece by piece to improve the sculpture, get to the bare bones and polish the surface. In some areas I’m so rough! But every day I accomplish something that improves me, in return develops the ranch, which I can be proud of, and helps the world.
Some might call it ‘awareness’. Consciousness is a priority across the board holistically for all decision making in sustainable management, based on a balance of conservation, community, our culture and business. It’s about how it all relates and impacts.
We have to be smart, for example about water courses or the logging lobby we’re facing, and that comes from understanding the bigger picture and trying to see the world from others’ shoes. And because we own everything outright, we can do the right thing when we make those decisions.
I don’t consider myself a religious person. Rather, when I’m talking to guests, whether spiritual or agnostic, my limited understanding of existence allows me to see life from an energetic stand point. That’s not objective: the best we can do is gather subjectivity from different sources, and try and create a rounded holistic view, and reflection of that. I try not to put labels or names onto that.
How you can be an Earth Changer:
Visit Linden Tree Retreat & Ranch 10% of all profits are reinvested into local conservation, community and education initatiatives.