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Farming on the Edge of Change

Published July 19, 2007, by the West Marin Citizen
Story and photos by Steve Quirt, UCCE Marin

Ten years ago you could drive from Two Rock to Dillon Beach through acres of dairy cows, cattle and sheep grazing on lush grasslands. Traditional commodity farming here stretches back to the war years when national demands for beef and wool replaced a diversified agriculture. Much has remained the same. But a closer look reveals something stirring up the status quo.

Today, that same drive to Dillon Beach showcases a renewal of diversified farming emerging from the pastures and alluvial valleys of West Marin. Food that was once shipped away to be distributed nationally is being transformed into delicious local fare, for locals to enjoy. Follow us on this ride.

The first farm you pass on the road to Dillon Beach is tucked up against the Coast Guard Training Center.

Canvas Ranch
Canvas Ranch is owned and operated by Debra Walton and Tim Schieble, both retired advertising professionals. From bare pasture, they have "painted" the canvas of Canvas Ranch with six acres of row crops and twenty-two acres of specialty livestock. They raise Baby Doll Southdown sheep (little guys for weed control in vineyards), cashmere goats, Maremma livestock guardian dogs and laying hens. They farm six acres of vegetables for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable delivery service, which now supports 125 subscribers.

David Little
Next on the tour you pass David Little's ranch where he grows heirloom tomatoes and manages his vast potato operation which is spread all over the northwest county on various ranches, with twenty acres on Al Poncia's place in Tomales.

Sartori Strawberries
Continuing, the Sartori Ranch strawberry fields emerge gracing the sloping pasture to the north side of Tomales Road. Russell closed the family dairy ten years ago and planted four acres of organic strawberries. Today, those berries have a reputation for sweetness, freshness and incredible flavor still unmatched. He harvests at dawn and delivers fruit that is vine fresh, untouched by refrigeration.

Wild Blue Farm, just across the street, is run by Margie McDonald and Jack Corwin. This jewel produces some of the most perfect and visually appealing specialty produce, culinary herbs and cut flowers in the county. Wild Blue produce can be found at the Point Reyes Farmers Market on Saturdays during the summer.

Rolling into Tomales you pass the old Cerini Ranch, now owned by John Williams and Ted Hall from Napa County, who plan on developing a state-the-art farmstead dairy and world-class cheese making facility. (Also underway in Marshall, Marcia Barinaga and Cory Goodman have begun construction on a farmstead sheep dairy and cheese plant).           

Clark Summit Farm
Driving north through Tomales you pass Clark Summit Farm, the old Cunninghame Dairy, which closed down in the eighties. Liz Cunninghame has returned to the ranch after managing the dairy herd at St. Anthony's Farm to reestablish the family operation. She and her husband Don Bagley manage 2000 laying hens and fryers, sixty hogs, and cattle, all raised on pasture. She sells certified organic "true' free-range eggs and grass-fed meats and poultry to the public.

Peter Worsely on Tractor
Along the back-roads towards Dillon Beach you find a few acres of dry-farmed potatoes, garlic and squash meticulously cared for by Peter Worsley from Point Reyes. This area is famous for its dry-farmed spuds and Peter grows them like the old-timers.

Toluma Farms
Just next to Peter's potatoes you'll find Toluma Farms, owned by Tamara Hicks. This is an exciting new enterprise. The owners are milking fifty goats and plan on expanding, using the fresh milk to make an organic cheese. The cheese maker is experimenting to come up with a product that reflects the terroir of the Tomales landscape.

There's more that I won't reveal! Blueberries, strawberries and raspberries have been planted, and an apple orchard is planned for cider production. There are rumors of cheese and butter operations as well as artichokes and more row crops. The diversification of our farms is under way and the excitement is infectious as farmers begin to see new ways of reaching direct markets and getting local food to local people.

As eaters of this emerging bounty, we should be aware of the work, risk and sacrifice these pioneers are assuming. It's not easy to change an operation that is generations old. It's not easy to begin a long dreamed of farming operation coming from an urban background. It's not easy to sustain a profit and remain farming with the current climate of regulatory and environmental scrutiny. These adventurers deserve our appreciation and support. Find the produce and farm products. Purchase freely and don't complain about the price. (Find local products at www.growninmarin.org). The prices reflect the true cost of the food. The attention and vision of these producers is part of the food. Honor it. Enjoy it. These farmers are truly farming on the edge of change.

An important part of the mission of UC Cooperative Extension (CE) is nurturing and fostering the diversification of our farms and ranches. In 1996 CE hosted a diversification workshop that inspired Randi LaFranchi, from Nicasio, to add 5 acres of vegetables to his dairy operation. The idea for an organic producers association was formed by the West Marin Growers Group with Janet Brown, Peter Worsley, Peter Martinelli, and others, and the seeds for a county organic certification program were planted.

Today, CE continues to put on farm diversification workshops, publishes Grown in Marin, a bimonthly newsletter, and continues to expand its website, www.growninmarin.org, all to support farmers and ranchers on their road to sustainability.