Farming over the Edge:Strawberry Fields Forever

By Steve Quirt

 

In 2000, just fifteen years ago, you could drive around Marin agricultural lands and find only dairy, beef and sheep. According to the Crop Report from 1970, 91% of the agricultural product was from livestock, in 2000 livestock products tallied 80%. In 2013 it was 76%.

Today, you find pastured chickens on dairy ranches, potatoes in Tomales and Fallon, produce and cut flowers at farms throughout the county, farmstead hard cider, micro heritage hog pens, goat, sheep and buffalo dairies and creameries, and even a blueberry farm in Tomales. Unused relic barns and outbuildings are being converted for new products and enterprises.

 

Subhead: What happened?

 

Bold italic: As with most things, when change happens, it happens through certain people.” Warren Weber, Hidden Bounty of Marin

 

The traditional Ag community traditionally looks at innovations and “new” enterprises with deep suspicion, sometimes followed by friendly ridicule and jokes. In 1998 Russell Satori, a third generation Tomales dairy rancher, sold his herd due to regulatory hassles. He rented his pasture out but still had the agriculturists itch, so he plowed up some ground to plant strawberries. His rancher neighbors made jokes at the coffee shop about Russell’s cute little Berry stand, not taking him seriously.

 

“Pasture is meant for cows.” They would tell him.

 

Until the cash started rolling in. It turns out that coastal Marin has a climate that nearly matches that of the Salinas coastal belt where much of California’s strawberry production is harbored. Spectacular strawberry cultivars like Seascape, developed by UC Davis, grow splendidly here, if you have the water and landscape. Russell farmed strawberries for ten years and was very successful. We nicknamed his fruit RussellBerries. He proved that there is life after dairy, and over the years other traditional families have added more and more side crops to their milking and grazing operations. Today, a half dozen dairy producers are also adding pastured free range egg production to their ranches, again, harkening back 100 years or so to the time when pastured eggs were the norm and scattered about the original ranches.

 

Russell’s example is symbolic of a change of thinking that began taking place as the established, traditional livestock community started to look around for something to insure their continuity. Family succession was, and is, a huge issue that haunts family farms today as more and more “kids” choose more lucrative careers away from home. But suddenly something new was in the air. The “D” word, “diversification” and the “S” word, “sustainability”, were being whispered and bantered about over Pedro games and coffee cups.

 

Adding Vines to Bovines

 

In 1990 Sharon and Steve Doughty, dairy operators from Point Reyes, confounded everybody by planting wine grapes on the south facing slopes of their ranch (diversification), putting in a small tasting room and a B&B (authentic agri-tourism). But everything was wrong about the operation: way out of the grape growing zone, too windy, too remote from wine country etc. But Sharon’s strong business sense and Steve’s tenacity won out and they released their first Sparkling Wine vintage in 1995 and have been producing wine ever since.

 

 

Cattle that Eat Grass

 

In 2001 Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation and consumers nationwide got an eye- opener to what they were consuming. Factory produced beef based on corn was exposed as a really bad practice packed up in slick, expensive advertising and people began to notice that they didn’t have a lot of choices. Mike Gale from Chileno Valley Ranch, and David Evans, born and raised on H Ranch, both saw the writing on the wall—cattle raised humanely and naturally on pasture without antibiotics or hormones, harvested humanely, processed and distributed locally was a new model. But it didn’t exist!

 

At a Marin Organic Board meeting in early 2002, Mike Gale looked at me (the newly minted Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator for UCCE), long and hard and said,

 

“What are you going to do about Grass-fed beef?”

 

From that remark came a series of producer meetings at Cooperative Extension to outline the needs of the producers, for both production, marketing and oversight of what “grass-fed” meant.

Mike And Sally Gale were there and so was David Evans, fresh home with his degree from Cal Poly. Both David and Mike stressed the importance of creating a new kind of organic and grass-fed infrastructure for small alternative producers.

 

Thirteen years later David Evans would purchase Rancho Veal, the Northbays only slaughter facility, realizing the vision of a vertically integrated and complete local infrastructure to serve the small, specialty and alternative ranchers who market locally. He had already developed a strong business model with his butcher shop and meat cutting plant.

 

Traditional family ranches have added or switched to local grass fed production on organically certified pasture, and market to local grocery stores and Whole Foods.

 

Cheese returns: “What goes around comes around.” – Bob Giacomini

 

Marin used to be dotted with small creameries designed for butter, but they also made cheese. After all, milk was king, and cheese and butter making was a way to preserve and transport product. But with refrigeration and transportation expansions the creameries were gradually replaced with the big plant in Petaluma as things consolidated.

 

By 1970 one cheese making plant remained, Marin-French Cheese in Hicks Valley. Until Sue Conley and Peg Smith moved to Point Reyes Station and started making award-winning cheeses from Organic Strauss Milk. The Cowgirls lit the torch exposing the hidden possibilities of added value opportunities that grows peacefully disguised as green grass, ready to be transformed by Jerseys and Holsteins into delightful cheeses.

 

Other producers started to see the possibilities of reviving the original model of the small, locally centered family creameries of previous times. Today award winning cheeses are regularly produced throughout Marin. I asked Bob Giacomini about this subject a decade or so ago and he told me, “What goes around comes around.”

 

Albert Strauss midwifes the birth of Organic Dairying

 

When Albert Straus came back from Cal Poly to the Strauss Ranch in Marshall 1977 he was armed with the newest thinking and innovations in dairy science, and a singular passion to modernize the family farm with sustainable and holistic management practices. But above all, Albert was passionate, and still is today, about farming the land and producing his milk with care, respect for the land and efficiency. This led him straight to organic production.

 

Until the mid seventies, organic was applied mainly to row crops—veggies, fruits grains nuts etc. The science of organic dairy production was pre-natal. Robert Vallejo, former herd manager for Albert, remembers.

 

“When we first started out, we had to learn everything ourselves. Nobody knew how to take care of the cows organically. We had to learn everything.” Robert Vallejo- Hidden Bounty of Marin

 

It took a truck load of effort for Albert to pull it off, but he managed to build Strauss Family Creamery out of courage, commitment and class into the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi and the very first certified organic dairy in the USA.

 

The innovators mentioned above have helped to shape agriculture by taking risks, having vision and believing in not only themselves, but the community that supports them.

 

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