Black Mountain Ranch gets organic certification

David Briggs
ORGANIC: Arron Wilder and Ben Livingston picked the last of this year’s pumpkin crop at Mr. Wilder’s plot on Black Mountain Ranch last Tuesday. The 1,179-acre ranch, along with three other smaller parcels in Point Reyes Station that he leases for row cropping, are now certified organic.  
10/22/2015

The amount of organic row crops and pasture in West Marin went up by 1,179 acres this month, with the certification of the historic Black Mountain Ranch, as well as scattered small parcels in Point Reyes Station.

The effort was spearheaded by Arron Wilder, owner of Table Top Farm, who leases land for row crops on a total of 11.5 acres across four properties. The newly certified organic lands include three-quarters of an acre on Cypress Road, one acre on McDonald Lane and roughly three acres on Toby Road, as well as the entire 1,179-acre Black Mountain Ranch.

Mr. Wilder started farming vegetables about five years ago on the small Cypress Road parcel. Originally, he didn’t find organic certification necessary. 

“I like the idea of having trust,” he said on a sunny afternoon as he sat on an overturned crate during a break from harvesting cherry tomatoes on Black Mountain. 

But last year, he won a $12,000 grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service for beginning farmers, which was contingent on securing organic status.  Since certifying Black Mountain’s pasture required little extra effort, he had the inspector review the entire ranch. The owners were enthusiastic. 

“We haven’t been using any chemicals on the ranch for eight or nine years,” said Dave Osborn, a trustee of the 150-year-old ranch, which is owned by his mother, Margaret Nobmann. “We all very much want the ranch to be an example of sustainable ranching and farming in the area.”

Mr. Wilder has also realized that organic status can boost his farm’s income. Though he started farming with the idea of only operating a CSA, there weren’t enough customers. He began selling to local restaurants, to the Palace Market and the People’s Store in Bolinas, and at his farm stand. 

Last year, when he harvested a bumper crop of some vegetables, he approached the Good Earth in Fairfax, but it only wanted certified organic veggies from him. This month, the effort appears to be paying off: in one two-day period, the grocery sold 120 pints of his cherry tomatoes.

Mr. Wilder said the only real effect that certification has had on his business is that he must keep diligent records for inspectors. Since he said he has never used traditional pesticides, his farming practices remain basically unchanged. He recently used his first bio-control method, called Slugo, at his plot on Cypress Road—though often he takes the “long view” and doesn’t intervene. 

When aphids started feasting on his broccoli crops last year, he didn’t fight them. “We just let the aphids take over, and suddenly there were flocks of ladybugs everywhere,” he said. “We’ve had very few bug problems at all this year. I think the ladybugs ate the other bugs’ eggs.”

For Black Mountain Ranch, the organic certification is in keeping with the evolving identity of the family-run property.  

When James Black bought the land in the 1850s, he produced hide and tallow, said historian Dewey Livingston. In the 1860s, Mr. Black divided his operation into tenant farms, and the Gallagher family began dairying on the ranch. Yet even back then, Mr. Livingston said, most dairies also grew some vegetables in the bottomlands.

The ranch converted to beef cattle sometime in the 1940s or ‘50s. It remained in the Black and Burdell families until the 1970s, when Ms. Nobbman purchased it. It will soon be grazed again, after almost two years without cattle; the ranch is finalizing a lease with Stemple Creek Ranch, a Tomales-based beef operation run by Loren Poncia, which grazes most of its cattle on organic pasture.

Today, the owners are actively pursuing sustainability and agricultural diversity. 

In addition to Table Top Farm and Stemple Creek Ranch, the property supports a heritage chicken cooperative for both meat and eggs that involves a cohort of family members and two others. The eventual aim is to have a “closed loop system,” said Mr. Osborne’s daughter Athena, growing all the chicken’s feed onsite. The family and others involved with the ranch also planted a 50-tree orchard, with a range of fruits, last year. And the Living Seed Company has two plots at the ranch, where Astrid and Matt Hoffman harvest heirloom seeds.

Mr. Hoffman said that their business, which sells their own seeds and contracts with other organic growers to repackage their seeds, will benefit. Though the couple is still figuring out logistics, he said, “It’s going to allow us to be able to grow most of our seed, as opposed to coordinating with other organic growers.”

A plot has also been set aside for Wild West Ferments, the food business owned by Point Reyes Station residents Maggie Levinger and Luke Regalbuto, so that someday they can grow vegetables for products like sauerkraut and kimchi.

In addition to the various agricultural operations, the ranch is applying to work with the Marin Carbon Project to create a carbon farm. 

They are also working with the Marin Resource Conservation District to improve roads and culverts and prevent silt from making its way into creeks. The project is funded with a $344,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as extra money, labor and equipment—contributed by Mr. Osborn’s family—amounting to about $60,000. 

“We’re bringing in a whole new set of energy,” said Mr. Osborn, who is vegan.

Despite his personal diet, he says that some of the family’s land works better as pasture than for row cropping, and he looks forward to Mr. Poncia’s operation coming to Black Mountain. 

“Loren has the right attitude. He knows what sustainable really is,” Mr. Osborn said. “We want to be truly sustainable. We don’t want to feed [cattle] anything other than what’s raised on the ranch.” 

Mr. Poncia is also excited about the new land. ”I’m really excited to graze Black Mountain. I think it’s a really unique property,” he said. 

About 90 percent of Mr. Poncia’s current herd grazes on organic pastures. “The fact that it was certified organic is a really important influence on me. It’s not a deal breaker, but the more organic pasture we have the better,” he said.

Any extra pasture in general is a boon to his operation, which has suffered during the drought, Mr. Poncia said—he came close to selling his herd in late 2013 and early 2014, before a February rain arrived. He is “cautiously optimistic” about the looming El Niño that could bring winter rains to Northern California, though he specified that pastures benefit far more from steady rains during fall or spring, when there is more light to help grass grow, than from a few big storms during the darkest part of winter. 

Yet leasing the Black Mountain parcel will not facilitate an expansion of his business, Mr. Poncia said; rather, he can let his other pastures rest. In fact, even with the extra land, he is planning to reduce his herd. 

“Until it starts raining, we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he said.