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New generation of West Marin ranchers coming back to the family farm

Marin Independent Journal
Marin IJ

A new generation of ranchers is emerging in West Marin, young adults who are going off to college but returning home to leave their mark on family businesses that have been around for generations.

One hundred years ago there were few career options for young people who grew up on a ranch. It was where they stayed to tend to animals and grow crops and eventually take over the family operation.

Today options abound, but more young people are coming back home and finding fulfilling work on the farm.

"Most of the friends that are my age would never want to be stuck in Tomales," said 24-year-old Marissa Thornton, who came back to her family's ranch after graduating from Chico State University with a degree in animal science in 2010. "They would rather be in a city or traveling. In that way I am unique, I decided at a young age to be here and do this now. When I'm here I am the most satisfied."

At her family's farm she works with her father helping raise beef and sheep on land that has been ranched for 150 years.

But Thornton — the sixth generation of her family to live in West Marin — has her own ideas beyond traditional agriculture.

She has free-range chickens and sells the eggs at a bakery in Petaluma under the name Marshall Home Ranch. Thornton also has bought eight dairy sheep and will start milking them in the spring. She will sell milk to a cheese maker initially, but has plans to make her own cheese.

"I love being outside. I could never have a job where I had to be inside," she said, looking over a hillside dotted with trees at the ranch. "I love animals and getting my hands dirty. In the long term I couldn't work for someone else, so this gives me the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and start a business, it's perfect."

Like other young ranchers, Thornton is paying close attention to emerging niche markets that focus on locally produced and organic goods.

"The market has changed so much, people are willing to pay more for local products," she said. "It didn't used to be that way when I was younger. The operations are more sustainable and in Marin that is important. It's a higher quality, it is hand-crafted. It's a good place to be if you want to be in agriculture. People want to support their local farmers."

Marin agriculture is continuing to diversify its products. In the past 10 years the amount of locally produced products sold directly to consumers annually has doubled from $600,000 to $1.2 million, according to the University of California farm extension in Marin. Ten years ago the county had two local cheese makers, today there are nine. Marin also has 20 livestock producers growing for the local organic and grass-fed beef markets. Ten years ago there was none.

"In this area, organic is where it is going to go," said Jarrod Mendoza, 26, who produces organic milk on his ranch near the tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula on the historic "B" ranch. "It's hard for conventional dairies because you have to compete with huge operations."

Mendoza, 26, also graduated from Chico State, but with a degree in criminal justice.

"My dad wanted us to get degrees in something else in case the industry went to hell," he said with a smile. "I thought about being in law enforcement, but once I got a sense for what they deal with, it made this job seem easy."

In 2010 he came back to start his business, the Double M Dairy, and is the fourth generation of Mendozas to work the land in Point Reyes. He now has 210 cows in production and produces about 1,400 gallons of organic milk daily that find their way into stores such as Trader Joe's. He is contemplating growing crops and may even try cheese at some point.

"I like being able to call the shots and use some of my own ideas," he said. "Some things work, some things don't, but it's nice to try new approaches. It's nice being your own boss," Mendoza said, standing in front of his modest home with young cows milling nearby behind a fence.

While keeping the family ranching business going was important to him, Mendoza said he will let his children do as they see fit.

"I didn't want to be the last guy on the chain, but with my kids, I will offer it to them, but they have to want to do it like I do. I don't want to guilt trip them into it," he said.

Ellie Rilla, a member of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust Board of Directors who served as Marin's University of California farm adviser for 22 years, is pleased to see the transition to the new generation.

"We used to call them our next generation, but that time has arrived," she said.

With the average age of a rancher at almost 60, many areas of the country are expecting hard transitions because the next generation is not staying, Rilla said.

"We are blessed in Marin to have fourth- and fifth-generation families who have a strong bond and stewardship to their land and returning to work the ranch," she said. "They go away to college and return with degrees in animal science, dairy production, or business ready to dig in."

Up the road in Valley Ford several younger ranchers and farmers from North Bay counties formed the Valley Ford Young Farmers Association to support one another and market their products.

The interest in organic, cheese and other local markets is making agriculture more attractive for young people, Rilla said.

"Confidence, enthusiasm and willingness to take new risks in new markets comes when you see other Marin producers trying and succeeding," she said. "There's a sort of snowball effect."

She noted MALT helps when it buys development rights from ranchers. That keeps the land free of sprawl and provides dollars to agriculture to support new endeavors.

Amanda Moretti, 18, a third-generation dairy farmer from Tomales, spent this summer working the fertile West Marin loam on her family's ranch. Now she is back at Cornell University studying animal science with great plans for the future.

"Once I am finished with my schooling, I hope to work in the agriculture industry, specifically dairy industry, as a marketing director, financial manager or some other position within the business sector," she said. "Eventually, I plan to take over my family's dairy in order to continue our family tradition of dairying in the North Bay."

While interested in the business end of agriculture, Moretti enjoys day-to-day chores such as feeding baby calves, as well as spending time outside and working side-by-side with her family.

"My ultimate goal to settle in the rolling hills of Marin County, where I can spend time with my family and our cows," she said.

By Mark Prado