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Point Reyes Station dairy is losing its cows - and its reputation

Rick Giacomini feeds some of the young heifers remaining at the Giacomini dairy ranch in Pt. Reyes. The young heifers are among the 200 cows remaining at the ranch. (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)


Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal



ONE RECENT morning, a fleet of trucks pulled up to the Giacomini dairy farm in Point Reyes Station and drove off with the symbol of the town.

Five-hundred-and-fifty black-and-white Holstein cows - whose iconic images adorn T-shirts and baseball caps, street signs and storefronts and even souvenir pajamas - were loaded up and carted off without fanfare, with the possible exception of a plaintive moo.

At the Dance Palace Community Center, which adjoins the landmark dairy, the morning yoga class watched with dismay as the cows were rounded up and driven away to a dairy in the Central Valley,

"It was a shock," said Carol Friedman, the Dance Palace's executive director. "I feel I didn't get enough notice. I miss the cows already."

Friedman has a fly swatter on the wall in the Dance Palace foyer and a sign above a doorway with this bit of wisdom: "Where there are humans, there are flies and Buddhas."

The saying is an enlightened reference to the swarms of flies that were an annoying reminder of the dairy, one of the inevitable drawbacks of having hundreds of cows practically in the center of town.

"And then there's the smell, which I've gotten used to," Friedman said with a smile, telling a story about a very proper woman visitor who once took her aside and politely whispered: "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I think there's something terribly wrong with your toilet."

Despite the unpleasant aspects, Point Reyes Station clearly cherishes its dairy-ranching history and image. Friedman and other deeply-rooted residents can't help feeling sentimental about their picturesque little village, population about 800, losing its singular identity as West Marin's only cow town.

"Having a dairy downtown is why I moved here," said Art Rogers, who has lived in Point Reyes Station since the '60s and whose fine art photos of cows dotting the landscape have helped make him a nationally-known photographer.

"Personally, I'd rather have the cows, but it's a controversial issue," he allowed. "Even some environmentalists are torn between keeping agriculture and restoring the wetlands."

The sale of the Giacomini farm's entire milking herd was the first visible evidence of a momentous plan to phase out the dairy, which has been in continuous operation in Point Reyes Station for more than 60 years, and return the land to its natural state as a coastal marsh.

That process will begin in earnest next spring when the National Park Service takes over the property, removes the levees that have protected the pastureland from flooding, and begins to allow the marshland to return to its natural state on the southern tip of Tomales Bay.

As part of the restoration, the park service plans to construct boardwalks and overlooks that will allow visitors to view the revived marsh and the return of its seabirds and wildlife. The park service says it will not construct any new parking, but will rely on existing spaces at White House Pool and other locations.

As the long-range project nears fruition, the park people see the the restored marsh as a breathtaking new gateway to the Point Reyes National Seashore.

"It's one of those issues where you can root for both sides," said Don Neubacher, superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore. "There's an historic element to the dairy, and the rural character of the town is important. But this is the last 10 percent of coastal wetlands in central California, and restoring it will do dramatic good for the bay. These are the lungs of the Lagunitas watershed. It's hard to argue against restoring wetlands."

You'll get no argument on that score from Inez Storer, a noted artist whose studio is directly across C Street from the dairy's barns and milking sheds.

"The flies were a nightmare, and the smell was awful," she complained. "But now that's gone. I walk that marsh all the time, and it's exquisite. It should be returned to its natural state, and when it is, it's going to be fabulous."

At Toby's Feed Barn in the center of town, a large cutout cow is the first thing you see in the store's front window. Toby's is a microcosm of the evolution in Point Reyes Station from an old-fashioned ranching community to a mix of niche market organic agriculture and tourism.

Site of the popular organic farmers market, Toby's still sells hay and feed for livestock as well as gardening supplies. But it also houses a gallery showcasing local artists, and its shelves are stocked with West Marin organic cheeses and other locally-produced foodstuffs, as well as an array of souvenirs for visitors to take home - hats, T-shirts, gifts, pajamas, many of them with the town's signature cow motif.

"It's a new time for Point Reyes Station, I think," said Toby's owner, Chris Giacomini, a cousin of the Giacomini family that operates the downtown dairy. "I'm 53, and as a kid I grew up watching the dairies go one by one. It's sad, but the new things that are happening are exciting, too. They're great for the environment and for the organic farming movement."

Helge Hellberg, executive director of Marin Organic, an association of organic farmers based in Point Reyes Station, put that movement on the map last year when he hosted Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, for a highly-publicized overnight stay and tour of West Marin's organic producers and farms.

Although the downtown dairy wasn't organic, its loss "is a reminder of how fragile agriculture is," Hellberg pointed out.

No one is more aware of that than the folks at the Point-Reyes-Station-based Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the first conservation organization in the country to focus exclusively on preserving farmland.

As yet another example of the "branding" of Point Reyes, the organic cotton T-shirts and tote bags it sells to raise funds are graced by a fanciful black-and-white cow based on a design by MALT co-founder Ellen Straus, a pioneer in organic dairy farming.

"That Giacomini dairy has been here in town since I have, since 1971, and way before that," said MALT Associate Director Elizabeth Ptak. "To me, it's emblematic of the town, and there's something to be said about the smell of agriculture. It grounds you, so to speak.

"It will be a big change, but the wetlands will be a terrific thing, too. On the one hand I'll really miss the dairy, and on the other I'll appreciate what's to come. I think a lot of people feel that way."

At present, there are 31 dairies in the county, a number that has held steady for the past half dozen or so years, according to MALT.

In 2000, the National Park Service bought 560 acres of the Rich and Darlene Giacomini dairy for $4.5 million. Under the sale agreement, the Giacominis have been allowed to lease the land for their dairy operation for seven years. That lease ends in March.

Public hearings on the draft environmental impact report on the park service's plans to restore the marsh will likely be held after the holiday season, Neubacher said.

For now, at least, Point Reyes Station - named originally after a railroad that ran through town for 59 years, until 1933 - is not entirely cow-less.

The Giacominis still have a couple hundred heifers that they're raising on the downtown farm and on some ranchland farther up the coast toward Marshall. Heifers are young female cows that have not yet birthed a calf and don't produce milk.

While opinions vary on the dairy issue, nothing in West Marin, it seems, escapes an element of controversy, and this deal is no exception. Some residents are worried about a potential land swap between the park service and the Giacominis that could allow the family to subdivide and build some houses along C Street, where their farm buildings are now.

"The Giacominis never sold us a lot of that strip near town," Park Superintendent Neubacher said. "In total, we're talking about 1.8 acres basically. It's not a lot. But, depending on how it goes through the county, there could be some houses built there."

According to Rich Giacomini, who operates the dairy with his sons, there's really nothing the family has to say at this point about homes being built on its last bit of downtown property.

"We don't have any plans on the table right now," he said. "We don't know what we're going to do. We're still negotiating with the park on certain parcels."

Giacomini is talking about a much-debated proposed swap that would give the park service some wetlands on the Inverness Park side of the marsh in exchange for the Giacominis getting a piece of developable property on C Street in town.

"We went through a public process on this," Neubacher said, "and we're modifying what we want to do. We haven't come out with a final proposal on this potential swap of land. The reason we wanted to do this is that the land on the west side has high ecological value. It's really great for the marsh to do this. The land near town has less ecological value. It's where their structures already are. It's that little strip that everybody is concerned about, but it is zoned residential in the community plan. The community plan calls for housing there."

Dave Mitchell, who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was the publisher of the weekly Point Reyes Light in the 1970s, believes the alarm over the housing issue has been blown out of proportion.

"There have been wild numbers thrown around, like 15 houses or something," he said, figuring that four houses is a more realistic estimate.

When the farm goes out of business, the mobile housing where the Giacominis' Mexican laborers live would likely be razed, he pointed out.

"I'm not sure the old houses being torn down and the new houses being built will change the population of Point Reyes Station one iota," he said.

A few suspicious community activists have questioned what they perceive as surreptitious strengthening of the Giacomini ranch's levees, but the park service reminds them that the family has the right to repair and patch the levees until their lease runs out next year.

The levees have been a bane to Levee Road residents like Jack Long, whose home and business raising exotic birds have flooded in past years when the levees backed up or overflowed during heavy storms. That shouldn't be an issue once they're taken down next spring.

"We just have to make it through one more winter," Neubacher said.

Rich Giacomini, who was born in Point Reyes Station and lives on the mesa north of downtown, has had seven years to resign himself to the loss of a family farm that has been his life's work, and his father's before him. Emotionally, it hasn't been easy.

"We're one of the last vestiges of the old Point Reyes," he said. "But Point Reyes has changed anyway. It's become a tourist town. And there comes a time when you have to move on."

In any case, a community's image, like a brand on the flank of Holstein, is hard to erase. Once a cow town, always a cow town.

The loud-speaker at the Old Western Saloon still bleats its "mooooooo" every day at noon.

The Bovine Bakery down the steet busily serves rolls and coffee to locals and tourists alike.

The Cowgirl Creamery around the corner produces organic cheeses in an old dairy barn, running a trendy business that has been featured in gourmet magazines.

A former taqueria on Main Street has re-opened as Rosie's Cowboy Cook House. The Cabaline Saddle Shop and Country Emporium still sells cowboy boots, western shirts and books on how to raise grass-fed cattle. And, since 1949, Western Weekend is an annual highlight on the town's calendar.

"There are plenty of cows and dairy ranches that are still on the hillsides," said Jean Knapp, who runs a photography shop downtown with her husband, Marty Knapp. "And the sense of ranch life is still felt in town. That will always be a part of Point Reyes Station."

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at liberatore@marinij.com