While Bob Berner was finishing an MBA program at the Wharton School in 1971, he started thinking about his future. Conservation never crossed his mind.
“I was looking for a job and most of my classmates were interviewing banks and large corporations and that wasn’t of much interest to me. I just happened to answer an ad in the Wall Street Journal and it was the Nature Conservancy. I had never heard of the Nature Conservancy,” Berner said.
The new job was eye opening.
Berner, then in his late 20s, decided he wanted to make his career in conservation, eventually relocating from the East Coast to San Francisco to work for an architectural heritage organization. When he decided he wanted to focus on land conservation, Berner again responded to an ad in the paper, this time for a young nonprofit called the Marin Agriculture Land Trust (MALT). Last week Berner announced his retirement after nearly 28 years as the organization’s executive director.
“It was a job,” Berner said of his initial interest in the position at MALT. “It looked really interesting—one thing led to another. You just never know. Life never is a straight line.”
Maybe not, but under Berner MALT’s ascension has been remarkably linear. When he began working for the trust, he was the only staff member and the group controlled two property easements. Now the organization employs 15 staff members and protects over 44,000 acres on 68 local farms and ranches. It’s considered one of the most successful farmland conservation organizations in the country, with a budget of more than $1.5 million plus another $3 to $5 million per year for acquisitions.
During a recent interview in his office in MALT’s two-story building in Point Reyes Station, Berner was nothing if not humble. “None of it is my individual accomplishment of course,” he said of the organization’s success. “There have been a lot of people who helped make MALT successful.”
Berner, now 70, grew up in Indianapolis, a fact that may or may not account for his exceptionally self-effacing, reserved manner. It is this demeanor, according to Ralph Grossi, MALT’s first board chair, that has been invaluable in navigating the organization’s growth over the years.
“Bob is a guy who handles things very calmly and I think that transmits to people around him. He transmits inner calm and patience and those are qualities—when you’re working in the middle of the political spectrum—that are really valuable,” Grossi said.
Grossi, who has stayed involved with MALT even after his retirement from the board in 1985, was on the committee that hired Berner in 1984. “I’m very proud of that hire,” Grossi said. “He’s done just a terrific job over the years and at a time where we didn’t know where MALT was going. We had a vision and a lot of hope—we needed a person that could literally take it and run with it, and Bob certainly did.”
MALT was created in 1980 by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists intent on preserving local agricultural land and fearful that zoning laws wouldn’t go far enough. By liquidating part of a rancher or farmer’s land—typically at about 40 percent of market value—without actually selling it, MALT is able to provide a financially viable conservation option for ranchers or farmers who wish to maintain the agricultural use of their property but may otherwise be squeezed out by a lack of capital or soaring property values.
But an agricultural preservation organization is nothing, of course, without widespread respect from the community it serves. “He really did a terrific job of wining over the farm community,” Grossi said of Berner. “Without the support of the farming community, MALT goes nowhere. Instead we have a great success story.”
Berner himself says the community’s respect for MALT was cemented in large part by a 1985 easement with the area’s prominent Lafranchi family. “They were a very well established family, highly respected, and I think that the transaction sort of helped to gain the confidence of many other people in the agricultural community. I would say that was an important step,” Berner said.
Another important step was the passing of California Proposition 70, or the Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Conservation Act of 1988. The decree, Berner says, designated $15 million for farmland conservation in Marin County, providing funds for MALT that would ultimately extend into the late 1990s, when the organization moved toward an alternative funding model.
Yet despite MALT’s success, Berner says fundraising has always been a challenge: “There are cycles to this, and the sources change over time. We’ve simply tried to adapt and make sure that we can access funding to support our projects, but we always have more to do than we can fund. We’re always challenged to raise enough money to do everything that is on the table.”
Before he began working for MALT, Berner had never heard of the organization. “I would come out to Point Reyes at least once or twice a month and drive through this [countryside],” he said. “I never knew what it was. You’d always see cows in the hills and it was always open and gorgeous. If you ride a bicycle out here, if you just drive out here—people love this area, people work here, people live here and people visit here partly because of this agricultural landscape.”
Thanks to Berner, it’s a landscape that appears to be sticking around for a while.