Marin Organic: A history

12/03/2015

A small group of food producers and their supporters gathered at Tomales Bay Foods on a recent November evening to commemorate the end of Marin Organic, the 14-year old nonprofit that has played a central role in promoting sustainable farming in the county.

Around a potluck buffet and plenty of cheese, people sipped beer and bourbon out of mason jars, mingled and listened to informal speeches. 

“Marin Organic reinforced everything I know about the way things should be,” said Warren Weber, owner of Star Route Farms in Bolinas. “From the very beginning, it was just so much fun. We had this resurgence of good feeling and doing something together that was enjoyable and had a purpose.” 

The organization launched in 2001 to promote local, sustainable food grown in a socially just manner. But the momentum began nearly a decade earlier, as an informal effort called the West Marin Growers Group. 

Last month’s convivial gathering of like-minded souls was a fitting farewell for a project that began in much the same way.

 

Early roots

The grassroots Growers Group, which included producers, retailers and restaurateurs, began to meet and talk about how the needs and desires of local farmers in the early 1990s. 

It was a time of growing pains for small organic growers; big businesses were moving into the market, and local food was not yet in demand. Marin’s agricultural identity was largely seen as a thing of the past. Few eastern Marin residents even knew their county produced meat, milk and produce—let alone where to get it.  

“There was a lot of fear that organic standards were going to go out the window,” said Peter Martinelli, owner of Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas and an original board member of Marin Organic. “It was a really important moment. Before ‘locavore’ or anything like that came around, we were thinking, ‘Let’s have our own standards and our own approach to organic ag.’ A confluence of trends happened, and Marin Organic came out of it.” 

Mr. Martinelli recalled a meeting of the group hosted by Margaret Grade at Manka’s Inverness Lodge in 1995, and said the main goals were labeling local food and starting a farmers’ market in Point Reyes. But other action items included education, creating local organic standards, and working toward regional food independence. 

Back then, attendees included Toby’s owner Chris Giacomini, Janet Brown of Allstar Organics, James Stark, Penny Livingston and Peter Worsley. County agricultural commissioner Stacy Carlsen and Marin U.C. Cooperative Extension director Ellie Rilla also often attended, Mr. Martinelli said.

“It was kind of a farmers support group,” Mr. Giacomini said. “We’d talk about their crops and what was growing.”

 

Growing success

The efforts of the Growers Group started the Point Reyes Farmers Market in 1995. 

“It’s a great story,” said Sue Conley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery. “It’s full of cynics all the way through. We were constantly challenged. We asked the farm bureau and MALT to sponsor it, and both said we didn’t have any farmers in Marin, we only had ranchers.” 

Some business owners in town originally objected to the idea, concerned about competition. They found it threatening—it was a big change,” said Mr. Giacomini, who volunteered to host the market at Toby’s. 

The group also achieved their goal of a local certification standard through a Marin Organic Certified Agriculture label. Mr. Carlsen volunteered to perform the certifications. 

“He said, ‘I’ll customize it as much as I can to get it the way you want,’ and he was true to his word,” Mr. Martinelli said. “As far as I know, he was the first county ag officer in the state, and probably in the nation, who stepped up and developed an organic inspection program for his region. And that was a direct result of a conversation with the Growers Group.”

County-subsidized certification made the process more affordable and accessible to farmers, Ms. Conley said. The county lent additional support in 2002 when they hired Steve Quirt as an advisor to help producers interested in switching to organic. 

 

Becoming Marin Organic

By the end of the 90s, the West Marin Growers Group was struggling to define its identity. In 2000, a brainstorming session helped clarify its mission, and the group emerged as Marin Organic. 

“The name says everything in two words: it’s from here, and it’s organic,” Ms. Conley said. 

For the first few years, the group was informally led by coordinators Wendy McLaughlin and Barbara Verenis, who helped launch the long-discussed Marin Organic label that was soon seen displayed at farmers markets, grocery stores and on the walls of restaurants that committed to buying a certain quantity of local goods. But for most of its existence, Marin Organic was shaped by Helge Hellberg, the executive director at the helm from 2004 to 2011. 

Food politics was a second career for German-born Mr. Hellberg, who spent the 90s performing with a capella band Five Live. He recently said his early days at Marin Organic were akin to his band days. 

“It was as rock and roll as you could make it,” he said. “There was no website, no real office. There was so much to do that I just kept working 14 hours a day; I was sleeping on an air mattress at the office and showering outside with a garden hose.”

Marin Organic was attracting hefty donations from private foundations and donors, as well as steadfast support from the county and the Marin Community Foundation. It began a cutting-edge project bringing local organic food to schools, which has now been widely replicated. Other programs included a gleaning project and young farmer education.  

Marin Organic’s most sensational accomplishment was a visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, champions of organic agriculture, in 2005. The royal couple came to Point Reyes, toured farms, browsed the farmers market and even had a drink at the Old Western. 

“The prince coming to Marin put an international light on farming in Marin County,” said Albert Straus. “That was a highlight.” 

Mission accomplished

Over the last 15 years, the county has become a national epicenter for sustainable food. Certified organic farmland has grown from less than 1,000 to over 40,000 acres; all row crop farmers and all but three dairies are certified. And consumers are much more educated and aware than they were a decade and a half ago.

In 2011, Mr. Hellberg resigned from Marin Organic, which was then run by the board until Jeffrey Westman was hired in 2013. This fall, Mr. Westman accepted a position with the Sonoma Land Trust. 

The change spurred a conversation within the board about what to do next, Mr. Westman said. 

“We essentially got to a point where we were like, ‘What are we actually doing? Are we just making stuff up to keep the organization alive?’” he said. “The advocacy and consumer education that the organization was all about for the first 10 to 12 years was kind of done; the farmers had kind of taken that over.” 

Rather than seek new directions and vie with other nonprofits for limited funding, the board decided it was time to shut down. 

For now, the group is retaining control of the brand and the logo that have come to mean so much in the county, and exploring whether to keep its nonprofit status. 

“I don’t think it’s dead,” said Guido Frosini of True Grass Farm—the youngest and newest member of the Marin Organic board—at the farewell celebration. “It might have to change names, and it might be wider than just Marin.”

 

This article was amended and corrected on Dec. 3 to reflect, among other things, the difference between the Marin Organic label and the Marin Organic Certified Agriculture label.