Our region will someday emerge from the pandemic with a fresh way of thinking about the way we live and the way we use, share and value our resources, especially food. The accelerated change taking place now is a chance for us to reprioritize our values toward a local, sustainable, organic farming and food production system.
As Dewey Livingston wrote in “Discovering Historic Ranches at Point Reyes,” “For a century and a half the ranching families of the Point Reyes Peninsula have persisted through adversity and change, always working harder than we can imagine while providing us with the wholesome foods that showcase the irreplaceable bounty of Point Reyes.” We now have an opportunity to change the way our food is produced and accessed. It is possible to make locally grown food abundant to all segments of our community, despite the distribution challenges that have plagued us while we shelter in place and those that existed long before the pandemic.
Ellen Straus and Phyllis Faber thought about this decades ago when creating the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. They thought that buying development rights from farmers would ease the financial stress that so many faced. As a result, our community has earned both an increase in local farming and food production and a guarantee that housing and commercial development does not occur when the land changes hands. But as Phyllis has said, “There must be a critical mass of farmers on this land for the agricultural economy to prosper.” We can’t afford to lose any more farms or farmers.
When the National Park Service created the pastoral zone within the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962, it designated the historic ranches “a cultural landscape” in an effort to allow the ranching traditions in the park to continue. With MALT in place to help farmers on the east side of Tomales Bay, and with the pastoral zone established in the park, the table was set for the next generation of agricultural families to build on.
In the 1990s, we started our businesses to support the local family dairy farms that were bringing new energy to the slumping rural economy in West Marin. One of Albert’s goals was to create a market for local organic dairies and to save his family’s farm; eventually, he hoped to help transition all of the dairies in Marin to organic, both for environmental and economic reasons. Organic practices are better for the land and offer a more sustainable, viable business model for the farmers. Our county agricultural commissioner now boasts that 85 percent of our dairies are certified organic, as are 100 percent of the row crops.
Cowgirl Creamery came along a few years after Straus Family Creamery with the hope that by introducing dairy families to farmstead cheesemaking, dairies could better survive the volatility in milk pricing. Cowgirl makes organic cheese from the milk of two local, certified-organic dairy farms: the Tresch Family Farm, which is one of 12 dairy producers that supply Straus Family Creamery, and Bivalve Dairy. Cowgirl also distributes cheese from other local producers to stores and restaurants across the San Francisco Bay Area.
Over the past 10 years, more dairies have started to make cheese. There are now more than 20 cheesemaking operations in Marin and Sonoma Counties making excellent cheese, while also providing good jobs and solid careers for hundreds of residents. Dairies that have decided to transition to organic or learned the craft of cheesemaking are enjoying the benefits of farm diversification.
This evolution of a vibrant local community of growers and producers is unique in the United States. Few regions emerged from the punishing post-World War II industrialization of agriculture with viable family farms in place. We have seen the number of dairy farms decline from 4.6 million in the 1940s to less than 35,000 today. Our farming and food system nationwide is at risk, experiencing the effects of a broken system even before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted access.
We have the opportunity to showcase a different model here. Isn’t that what West Marin is famous for—going our own way?
Cows can live in harmony with elk if managed properly. Grazing animals contribute more than just food for the table: their role is essential to protecting our planet and slowing climate change. Cows keep the grasslands healthy by stimulating pasture growth, fertilizing the soil and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. And grazing animals like elk, if managed correctly with livestock, provide less fuel for wildfires. If a fire or natural disaster occurs, the ranch families and farm hands who live on the land are keeping an eye on the park when the sun goes down.
Now is the time to work together to find solutions that protect nature, and also protect Point Reyes ranchers—a precious endangered species.
Sue Conley has served for 18 years as a member of the board of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. She lives in Petaluma. Albert Straus, a Marshall resident, has been a leader in sustainable organic farming practices for many decades.