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Organic evolution: farming a natural choice for Tomales woman

HARD AT WORK: Liz Cunninghame makes sure her chickens are fed in one of her four chicken houses on her family farm in Tomales. She has 700 chickens. Special to the IJ/Kevin Hagen

by Paul Liberatore, Marin I.J. 
June 25, 2006

Liz Cunninghame, Dan Bagley and family friend Gabriel Grimshaw sit down to a dinner of salad and pot-roasted beef that was grown organically on the Clark Summit Farm. Liz Cunninghame enjoys a walk through her pastures with her family on mother's day. The Clark Summit Ranch's 160 acres of pasture is a great place to relax during a summer sunset. Liz Cunninghame was never much of a girlie girl.

As a child, she didn't dream of becoming a movie star, or a pop singer, or a princess.

A self-described tomboy, her fondest hope was to someday take over the family farm, to become the third generation of Cunninghames to work the hilly grassland near Tomales, the tiny agricultural town in northwest Marin County.


Nine years ago, while she was working as a supervisor at the nearby St. Anthony Foundation farm, her father, Alexander "Bud" Cunninghame, died and left his 160-acre dairy farm to her.


"My dad used to say, 'If only Liz had been a boy,'" she recalled with a warm smile. "He would have loved to see this."


She and her husband, Dan Bagley, named the spread Clark Summit Farm, after an old narrow gauge railroad switch that used to operate across the highway.


Unable to compete with large, industrial dairy operations, they sold her father's milk cows and now produce organic eggs, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. They are in the process of becoming the first organic pork producer in Marin County.


"You've got to find your niche market," she said. "For us, it's early in the game."


To survive in today's economy, she has joined the movement of baby boomer farmers who have spearheaded Marin Organic, an association of organic producers whose members base their livelihood "on a respect for nature and a sense of place."


The 48-year-old Cunninghame's sense of place comes from living all her life on this small farm, which her grandfather bought in 1916. Her four children grew up here in the same century-old farmhouse where she was raised and where her father was raised before her.


One recent hot afternoon, she was gathering eggs in a henhouse so loud from the cacophony of hundreds of cackling hens that she couldn't hear her husband calling her from the doorway.


In a moment, she emerged from the shady coop carrying a wire basket loaded with more than 100 eggs. She gripped the handle in one strong hand, a tanned, toned bicep bulging from the weight.


A handsome woman with her hair tucked under a black Nike baseball cap, she had on wrap-around sunglasses perched on her head, tan cargo pants, dusty hiking boots and a sleeveless muscle shirt that said on the front, "We surf. Do you?"


As she walked toward her waiting ATV with the basket of multi-colored eggs, some brown, some beige, some pale green and light blue, streams of Rhode Island reds flowed out of the henhouse and swirled around her feet.


"They're real friendly and soft," her husband said as he picked up a fiery red bird for a visitor to pet.

"Except when you take their eggs. Then they'll peck you if you're not careful," she quickly cautioned, pointing to a peck mark on her cheek as proof. "I kind of let down my guard for a minute."


The 400 to 500 eggs that Cunninghame's 700 chickens lay every day generate most of the farm's income. They cost $4.99 a dozen at local grocery stores, and there's a huge demand for them.


"They're like nothing you've tasted before," she said proudly.


While the chickens rule the roost, the bulk of the farm's acreage is rolling grassland, lush pasture for some 50 head of beef cattle. The beef is sold directly from the farm to its customers, usually families from all over the state, who place orders online.


Cunninghame sells her pork the same way, in quarters and halves that end up in home freezers. She has some 45 pigs, mostly gigantic Durocs and Yorks, and a new litter of 18 piglets.


As she led a tour of the property, she stopped to admire a couple of huge, pink 300-pound hogs lolling in the heat, blissfully unaware that they're scheduled to be "harvested" the next week. A fellow whose nickname is "One Shot" comes out and does the deed.


"I like the idea of them being harvested here, but it was hard for me to be around that at first," she admitted. "I didn't like to be here. I couldn't watch. But now I'm used to it. If you're not a farmer, it sounds kind of brutal, but your meat comes from somewhere."


A loquacious, spirited woman with a strong sense of the Cunninghames' Irish immigrant roots, she shares the family's white, clapboard farmhouse with her 88-year-old mother, Eleanor, her husband and his teenage daughter, Ashley.


Her son Cory, a recent college graduate, has come home to help out around the farm and coach football at Tomales High. He lives in a shack next to the farm's old red barn. Two of her four children are school teachers in Oregon and Washington. And her youngest, 19-year-old Ashleigh, a student at the University of Redlands, is home for the summer.


Clark Summit Farm is doing well enough that Cunninghame and her husband are expanding their operation, adding more chickens, cattle and pigs, with the goal that, hopefully sooner than later, the enterprise will be profitable enough that he can afford to quit his maintenance job at Tomales High and devote himself full-time to the farm.


"His friends at the gym kid him that he married a farmerette who's gonna work him to death," Cunninghame said with a smile, standing in the cool shade of a former milking shed that is now used to clean and store baskets of eggs.


For now, though, most of the responsibility for this new chapter in the family's farming history rests squarely on her sturdy shoulders. She works from sun-up to sunset. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I love the ranch life," she said. "I love this land. It's been in my family forever. It's my duty to keep it going."



Marin County became internationally known as a leader in organic farming when Britain's Prince Charles visited in November, shining a spotlight on local advances in sustainable agriculture. The IJ takes a look at a member of Marin Organic, Liz Cunninghame, a third-generation family farmer who has embraced organic agriculture on her Clark Summit Farm in Tomales. Clark Summit Farm can be reached via e-mail at clarksummitfarm@aol.com. Information is available at www.marinorganic.org and at www.eatwild.com.


Read more West Marin stories at the IJ's West Marin page.

Paul Liberatore can be reached at liberatore@marinij.com