Fair exhibits Marin County’s diverse agricultural bounty

07/05/2012

A group of men in suits and fedoras tour Ed Mitchell’s potato crop in Tomales; a young Boyd Stewart plants oats from atop his John Deere tractor in Nicasio; and, on a tract of land where the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course now stands, horses pull a mower through a sun-drenched field of vetch. These scenes and many more were on display at this year’s Marin County Fair as part of the photography exhibit, “Marin’s Agrarian Roots 1920-1950,” which shows the history of an area known for innovation in both food production and conservation.

When it comes to agriculture and natural splendor, West Marin offers an embarrassment of riches. But that bounty is a result of the many hard-won battles of local farmers, environmentalists, politicians, organizations, men and women who, over the past 90-odd years, have fought to keep Marin County beautiful and fruitful.

The storied history of that journey was apparent this week at the fair’s premiere exhibition and at a variety of events, under the theme “Always fresh, fun and local,” organized by fair manager Jim Farley and exhibits coordinator Charlie Barboni. Through the Grown in Marin exhibit, visitors could watch documentary shorts in the Farm Films screening room, learn about “The Story of Our Food” through The Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), take a gander at Marin’s growing beekeeping trend, and see displays by Clover Stornetta, the Marin History Museum and the Marin Country Free Library.

Greeting fair-goers in the exhibition hall was a collection of arresting vintage photographs taken by the county’s first farm advisor, M. B. Boissevain. “Boisse” (pronounced like the capital of Idaho) had an artistic eye when it came to documenting the county’s farming roots. Most of the photos were from the collection of the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History in Inverness, where they had been donated 22 years ago as negatives after being pulled out of a dumpster.

Dewey Livingston, West Marin historian and curator of the museum, said the photos represented a veritable treasure trove of West Marin’s agricultural history, a glimpse into the region’s bucolic past. “People are just amazed at this piece of Marin’s history,” he said.

To the neighboring Blue Ribbon Stage came a Who’s Who of West Marin agriculture over the course of the fair. During a series of “meet the cheese maker” talks, audience members heard presentations from Cowgirl Creamery, Barinaga Ranch and Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. A parallel “meet the farmer” series featured ranchers and dairymen Mike Gale, Sam Dolcini, Albert Straus and others.

“Bringing agriculture to the fair has been such a great partnership, and wouldn’t have happened without Jim Farley and Charlie Barboni,” David Lewis, the county’s current farm advisor, said. A black and white photo of Mr. Lewis leaning on his Prius is hung near a portrait of Mr. Boissevain and his Model T.

Sitting around a table near Art Rogers’s photography exhibit, titled “Yesterday and Today,” some of the farmers spoke informally about their place in Marin’s agricultural history and how they planned to embrace its future.

“It used to be that you knew your farmer. It was a personal relationship people used to have with their food, and with the farmers who grew it,” rancher Mike Gale, former president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, said. Smaller operations like the Gales’ have found success  — or at least survival — by focusing on niche markets and direct marketing as a way to adapt to a changing economy. In the past, Mr. Gale and his wife, Sally, sent out more than 1,000 letters to inform customers about the beef, pork and lamb that would be available that year. “Now I can write to all of them with a click of the mouse,” Mr. Gale said.

Beef rancher Sam Dolcini, whose great-great grandfather first farmed the area in the 1850s, was confident in taking a slightly different approach.

“We’ve lasted for 150 years,” Mr. Dolcini said, “so we must be doing something right.” He described his family’s operations, where things were done as efficiently as possible in order to keep product costs down.

“We make blue collar beef,” he said, “so a blue collar worker can still hopefully afford a steak.” He went on to say that there were a lot of misconceptions about agriculture, especially about operations that, like his, were growing in size.

“Customers cast votes for agriculture in two arenas — at the ballot box, and at the grocery store,” he said. “But while they only vote twice a year at the ballots, they cast votes with their grocery buying every day of the year. In order to remain economically viable, one of the options is to grow.”

Albert Straus of the Straus Family Creamery was also on hand, answering questions and offering samples of his new Greek-style yogurt, which debuted at the fair this year. He said that almost every dairy in West Marin was looking to become organic. Straus was the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi, and now goes above and beyond those requirements to be GMO-free as well.
“It’s important that the public knows where their food comes from and how important farms are, in the past and the future,” Mr. Straus said.

It was easy to imagine that transition from past to future standing in the exhibit hall, with photographs of these farmers’ ancestors and predecessors displayed behind them. One series paired Mr. Boissevain’s photographs of recognizable Marin settings with contemporary photographs taken by Mr. Livingston in the same spot.

Yet while so much has changed in Corte Madera or Novato, where fields of stacked hay have been replaced by shopping centers, some of the photo pairs taken in West Marin are striking for precisely how little has changed.

One picture by Mr. Livingston taken of the fields at the foot of Black Mountain this past March looks virtually identical to a photo taken in 1923. In another, the only hint that an Olema Valley scene is vintage is the presence of Mr. Boissevain himself, sitting on the running board of his Model T.

The show and the farmers it showcased were there to remind us that these similarities are no accident.