West Marin, meet Dominic Grossi

David Briggs
CANDIDATES: Dominic Grossi, a Novato dairy rancher, said elected officials should introduce legislation to protect historic agricultural operations in the Point Reyes National Seashore.  

Dominic Grossi's life has revolved around dairying. He grew up on his family’s ranch in West Novato, across from Stafford Lake. In high school, he participated in Petaluma’s Future Farmers of America and the agricultural mechanics team (the latter of which earned a state championship in 1989). He majored in dairy science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. When he returned to Novato—where he now lives on the dairy with his wife, Nancy, and their two children—he started working at the family business. He became an official business partner with his dad, George, in 1997. 

Dominic has served on two dairy associations, the board of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Petaluma High School F.F.A. agricultural advisory committee. He coached the F.F.A.’s dairy judging team and was president of the Marin County Farm Bureau for five years. Now Mr. Grossi wants to represent a broad district with a host of issues. His experiences are rooted in agriculture. But his work on the dairy and in advocacy at the Civic Center—where he sometimes succeeded and sometimes lost—have taught him the importance of negotiation and compromise.


Point Reyes Light: What issues did you tackle at the farm bureau? 


Dominic Grossi: A lot of the issues revolved around the Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program. I think we were very successful in getting, for example, intergenerational housing. That’s in the Local Coastal Plan [update]. We were able to sit down with E.A.C. and the Sierra Club and M.C.L. and explain the importance of intergenerational housing. [We are] still trying to get that across with coastal commissioners.

For example, the house we are sitting in today: If we were in the coastal zone, it would not have been allowed to be built. I wouldn’t be on this ranch and I wouldn’t be able to be a dairyman. The coastal zone does not allow for second units or second homes. 

It’s not appropriate to take the parents or the grandparents off the ranch so the kids can continue on. There are three houses on this ranch. I think there are five on a neighboring ranch. We’re not trying to develop skyscrapers, we are trying to make sure that future generations that want to stay involved in the family business have the option. 

They were not in favor when we started because development in general is a concern from an environmental standpoint. We understand that. But once they understood that there’s a 500, 600, 700-acre ranch and only adding one or two homes, it’s not a high-density project. And we really watched the local food movement grow over 10 years, especially here in Marin. They recognize the importance of that. 


Light: You’ve largely worked with dairying and ranching organizations. What was it like when you started sitting down with environmental organizations?


Grossi: It’s learning and hearing their side of the story. For instance, we talked a lot about streamside conservation areas. As ranchers, we had always felt that you could build up close to the creek but just make sure you’re not interfering with the riparian areas. They explained why we need to be a bit further away. Now there’s an interim [ordinance]. That’s continued to be a little bit of a struggle. But again, you just have to continue to work on those issues and try to find common ground. 

Back in the ‘70s, dairy communities in Sonoma and Marin were the first ones in the entire state to start fencing out creeks and building free-stall barns to keep our cows covered in the wintertime and to build manure pits to prevent [manure] water from getting into public waterways. By explaining that, they understand we’re trying to do the right thing for the environment. If we destroy the land, we don’t have a future. It was a learning experience on both sides. I developed good relationships with Gordon Bennett, and Fred Smith and Amy Trainer with the E.A.C. 


Light: Let’s talk a little bit about your work here at the dairy.


Grossi: Everyday work: feeding cows, cleaning calf pens, scraping barns, spreading manure in the summer and the fall onto the hillside and onto the flat ground where water quality requires it. There’s a million things to do. Fixing fences. It goes on all day long. Or if you get woken up at two in the morning because something’s wrong in the milk barn. There’s always work to do. 


Light: What have been some challenges you faced in the business?


Grossi: We’ve made changes on the ranch with milking procedure to improve milk quality over the past 20 years. We started pre-dipping all the cows to clean the teats before you milk them, which makes a huge difference in lowering somatic cell count. We built the new calf barn. You learn you need to tweak things all the time. Here we are challenged because you don’t have a lot of flat ground, so we don’t have a lot of pasture. 

Right now I’m in the process of going organic; I’m cutting the herd down to about 150 cows. We now milk 250 to 260 cows. With fewer cows, they will be able to get back out on the pasture and we will be able to start that come March of next year. If I turned out the cows out now, there’s so many that it might cause erosion. 


Light: Why did you decide to go organic?


Grossi: I look at the sustainability of the ranch. The conventional business has ups and downs, and while we’ve had some great years, we’ve had some horrible years. [Going organic], I'm hoping, will level that out. You know what you’re going to get paid all year long with organic. Conventionally, the state sets the price of milk. The price of milk will fluctuate tremendously from month to month; but [the state doesn’t] regulate the price of feed. That’s open market, so the price of corn or alfalfa could skyrocket, because the price of milk is high, and they know they can sell it for more. Then what will happen is that the price of milk might plummet, but the price of feed might stay high. That happened in 2009. It drove hundreds of dairies out of business in California.


Light: What are your thoughts on the lawsuit regarding the seashore’s ranch management plan?


Grossi: Salazar directed the park to get 20-year leases. They haven’t done it because they have not completed the ranch management plan. In the meantime, the ranches are suffering. They desperately need 20-year leases to secure funding from banks; they have capital improvements they want to do. The 20-year leases would give them a little stability. 

My fear is the endgame is to eliminate ranching completely because the lawsuit will go through, and it will force the park to do their management plan and in doing so they must take public comment. And these well-funded organizations can then reach out to their donors, thousands across the country. They have form letters and people can just sign it. And they get thousands upon thousands of letters saying the ranchers should not be there. And that outnumbers us. Our community is a smaller community. So our fear is that the park will do the plan and remove cattle and it will be easier for the park to just give up on this lawsuit than fight for what is right. That’s why I believe very strongly that environmental organizations who agree with ranching in the park need to stand together with the ranchers, supervisors and the park service. If all of us stand united, I think we can prevail. 

If you look at the testimony from the Senate hearings, the intent was for cattle to be there in perpetuity. It just didn’t get written into the actual law. 

The first thing we need to do is fight the lawsuit. Then go through the ranch management plan process. But at the same time, I think we need to get Senators Feinstein and Boxer and Congressman Huffman involved to work on an amendment that clarifies that cattle were meant to be there in perpetuity. Of course we would have to make sure they are taking care of the land properly. And as long as they are, they should be allowed to stay.


Light: Do you feel like your experiences are broad enough to deal with all the different issues a supervisor handles?


Grossi: I feel like I’m garnering a grasp of other issues. There will be new issues all the time that no one has a grasp on yet. It’s all about education and surrounding yourself with the right people. And listening to the people who are talking about them. And understanding the different perspectives—how it will affect the county, how it will affect environmentalism, how it may affect, say, ranchers. 

There are serious homelessness issues in San Rafael, and where do you place those 50 or 70 people? That, of course, affects business and you want business to thrive. Then that leads to the affordable housing issue. So right now our county is starting to head in the right direction. 

They had workshops last year and they are in the process of purchasing the Coast Guard property. Things like that will hopefully keep more of the workforce here in Marin. There are a lot of illegal second units, and I think that we should allow some of the second units to come into compliance without penalty. That would increase in the number of units we have without actually building new ones. 

You also have to have ideas for creating additional housing. Again, I look to agricultural lands where second units are not allowed. But why? You have a 600-acre ranch and I can’t build a 750-square-foot unit for a teacher in Tomales. Why not? If someone’s willing to dedicate that second unit to affordable housing, I think we should be receptive to that. 

You can also get specific with Point Reyes and Marshall and Airbnbs. I don’t think the county should step in and eliminate the idea of Airbnbs. If a person owns a house and they want to rent it out because they’re gone for the weekend, I don’t have a problem with that. But maybe we need to look at a cap as to how many days they can lease it out every year. That might incentivize them to stay there more often or allow families to be in those houses year- round. It’s a complicated issue because it's someone’s home, and they should be able to do what they want with it. But maybe we should put limits on it. In Marshall, 80 percent of households are empty. These are discussions we need to have.

We also have a transient occupancy tax. It’s locked in at 10 percent of the value of a stay. Well, maybe we look at increasing that fee a little bit and we take that additional revenue and figure out a way to put it directly into that town’s economy. If you make the fee high enough, maybe some people will start saying, “Okay, I’m not going to rent the place, I'll just live here.” I don’t know if that’s a solution; I’m just saying we need to be discussing more ideas for what’s going on with it. It’s not going to be a simple issue to deal with.


Light: What other issues have come up as you’ve talked to people in West Marin?


Grossi: Another big issue that I’m hearing from people has to do with tourism and traffic on the road. Highway 1 is not designed for the amount of traffic and cars on it, especially on the weekends. That becomes a safety issue. We may need to make some infrastructure improvements, such as where we can and can’t increase road width from a safety perspective. I don’t want to reduce tourism necessarily, but I want to figure out ways to get tourists in the area without everyone driving their vehicle. So I think bussing them in them would be the right move.


Light: Do you think shuttling would be effective in such a spread-out place? 


Grossi: It would be difficult. When people go to Point Reyes National Seashore, some want to travel all the way to Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Hog Island. Some want to go to the lighthouse. They need their vehicles to have the freedom to move around. Maybe we work through our visitors bureau to organize it. Where those buses would start from, I don’t know yet. 

Here is another issue. If you’re trying to pick them all up in San Francisco, well, there are a lot of people in southern Marin. Maybe we need to find a parking area in southern Marin where we can congregate and bring people up. Maybe a big bus brings them to Point Reyes and then smaller buses head to Hog Island or other places. It would require multiple buses; that becomes another expensive proposition. But again it may be something we should talk about. 


Light: Some people are concerned about the use of pesticides in public spaces. 


Grossi: The county policy allows it on county land and they certainly allow it on private lands. What you have is an invasive species plant issue, and if you don’t take care of it, it can become incredibly difficult for all of Marin. They need to be sensitive to the needs of the people in that area, they need to bring it to their attention before they’re going to spray. Because if those people say, “Hey, we will go pick those weeds,” then we don't need to spray. But the option needs to be left on the table in case of emergencies. I know certain ranches have been overrun with certain thistles, entire ranches, because they went organic trying to do the right thing, but the thistles took over, over a number of years. All I'm saying is that I’m being pragmatic about it. You need to leave that option available in case it’s necessary. 


Light: Have you had issues on your own ranch with thistles?


Grossi: We’re in the transition of going organic, so we’re starting to do more hoeing. Over the years, we’ve kept our ranch pretty clean. We have sprayed. That has stopped now, so it becomes incumbent upon us to stay on top of it to make sure you’re managing your thistles better. But we don’t have that big of a problem here either. It’s not so much thistle here as malba. If I’m wandering around, it’s easy to pick a couple hundred malba, especially now. Picking is actually easier than hoeing right now because it’s so wet.


Light: Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to run?


Grossi: I looked at it as an opportunity when Supervisor Kinsey said he was going to resign, because I never would’ve run against him. I think he’s done a pretty good job taking care of things in West Marin. 

I look at West Marin wanting to continue the proud traditions we have out here, protecting the landscape as we’ve had it for so many years now. The legacy through Kinsey and Giacomini of preserving West Marin—that’s very important to me. My family has been here for so long, I would hate to see things change. For other candidates, maybe it’s not as important to them because they’re not necessarily from here and they don’t have family on ranches. 


Light: Are you going to step down from the dairy if you win?


Grossi: To a certain extent. I am still going to be a partner and owner in the dairy. Because we’re going organic, we will have fewer cows. We have two milkers and we would go to one milker because that’s all you would need. The other employee would still be able to stay here and work and do a lot of the stuff that I do: getting on tractors and feeding and scraping barns, things that I normally do. And I could still be here early in the morning and in the early evening and check on things. Plus, my dad is here. He still loves being on the ranch.