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Rethinking the farm

By Jacoba Charles
Marin Magazine

West Marin families are keeping tradition alive with hard work and plenty of innovation

A screen mounted on the wall shows a close-up view of the demonstration. This is The Fork, the Giacomini family’s latest enterprise. A center for cooking classes and other events, The Fork sits in the middle of the family’s working dairy farm on a hillside north of Point Reyes Station. Students, paying upwards of $100, are offered a behind-the-scenes tour full of gritty detail: Newborn calves, grassy fields, feeding barns and muck — it’s all there.

“We think it’s important to show how everything they see outside translates to the flavors on the plate,” says Jill Giacomini Basch, one of four sisters who are now running — and diversifying — the family business. Eleven years ago the sisters started the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, and in 2010 they opened The Fork. “We decided to quit our day jobs, come back to the farm to really give it a go,” Basch says.

Marin County has a strong agricultural heritage, with many ranching families such as the Giacominis going back five to seven generations. Dairy farming is a $26 million-a-year business in Marin, and small, family-run dairies and cattle ranches still dominate Marin’s rural west side. But keeping these ranches financially sustainable — and keeping younger generations involved — has been a struggle.

Roughly half the land in Marin is still used for agriculture, but ranching has never been a way to get rich, especially here in one of the most expensive places in the country to live. Phyllis Faber, one of the founders of the Marin Agriculture Land Trust, which buys the development rights to rural land in order to preserve it for agricultural use, notes that ranchers are challenged by the high price of land and fuel, combined with demand for low-cost food.

Moreover, “a lot of our farmers don’t have the big acreage necessary to compete if they are just producing conventional milk and conventional beef through the normal markets,” says Dave Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension program in Marin, which provides agricultural resources to farmers and ranchers as well as consumers. So local farmers are turning their small size, their prime location and a growing demand for local, fresh food to their advantage through value-added products.

Instead of simply selling their milk at low prices to traditional dairy cooperatives, local dairy families such as the Giacominis of Point Reyes Station, the Lafranchis of Nicasio and the Strauses of Marshall are making cheese, yogurt or ice cream that they sell directly to consumers or grocery stores. Instead of traditional corn-fed beef, local ranchers such as Dave Evans of Point Reyes Peninsula’s Marin Sun Farms, the Poncias of Tomales’ Stemple Creek Ranch and the Gales of Chileno Valley Ranch are switching to grass-fed herds and adding other livestock such as sheep, goats and pigs.

In addition, many West Marin ranchers are responding to the growing demand for fresh, local food by going organic, or cutting out the middleman and selling straight to customers at farmers’ markets or on the ranch. Some, such as the Pancias, also lease their land to up-and-coming organic farmers and other agricultural entrepreneurs such as cheesemakers. From making jams and jellies to sausages and steaks, people are still finding a way to earn their living from the land.

“In the last 10 years the value-added concept has gone from a few pioneers and innovators to being part of the norm,” says Lewis of UC Extension. “What’s really great is that the next generation sees this as their addition to the farm. They love that they are continuing the family tradition while bringing some new business skills and their own motivation.”

Returning to their roots

“We’re a 90-plus-year-old dairy operation, and now we’re engaging in cheesemaking traditions from the same village in Switzerland that our grandfather was born in,” Rick Lafranchi says, sitting at a table in the salesroom of Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, which opened last year on Nicasio Valley Road. A large glass window in one wall enables visitors to watch Rick’s brother Scott work in a white-tiled room making one of the company’s six varieties of farmstead cheese. Down the road, Randy Lafranchi manages the family’s organic dairy.

“We started talking about cheese after a visit to Switzerland,” says Rick. “We looked on it as a chance to allow the ranch to continue, because the dairy business has been really hard for the last 10 years.”

The new venture not only is financially stable but has also enabled Rick and his siblings to rejoin the family business. “We wanted something that would let the dairy survive as well as thrive and also make the best use of the land,” he says. “Cheese seemed to make the most sense — and we have a passion for it. It’s been very exciting, very challenging and very rewarding.”

The Lafranchis are part of a growing coterie of local cheese-makers. Though Marin French Cheese has been operating since 1865, the opening of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station nearly 15 years ago marked the beginning of an explosion in cheesemaking in the county. Now numbers of artisan cheesemakers are increasing throughout California, and more than half are located in Marin and Sonoma counties. A third of them opened their doors within the last three years, with more set to open soon.

Building a better buffalo

One of those budding cheesemakers is Craig Ramini, who left his Silicon Valley job to launch a second career making America’s first water buffalo mozzarella. “It’s exciting to think that cheese is emerging as an artisan industry in the county,” says Ramini, who leases 25 acres of ranchland from the Poncia family, near Tomales. He expects to produce his first experimental batches in a few months.

While there is inherent value in using an exotic animal like water buffalo — which are renowned in Italy for making a delicious mozzarella — there also are challenges, Ramini says. Because the breed that is common in the United States has always been a meat animal, they are not temperamentally or physically suited to producing milk.

“Imagine if someone said, ‘We want you to start a cheese business, but you have to use beef Angus,’?” says Ramini. “It’s really hard. It would be lovely if you could just load a bunch of these buffalo on a plane in Italy and fly them over, but the USDA won’t let you do that.”

Branching out

Cheese isn’t the only field in which ranchers have been diversifying. “In the last five years, what we see at the farmers’ market has changed drastically,” says Brigitte Moran, CEO of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, which operates the weekly farmers’ markets at the Civic Centers as well as others throughout the region. “A bunch of ranchers have transitioned into selling directly to the consumer. And we’ve seen a lot of diversity from farmers who used to only do one crop; they are going back to the old ways where they had a diversified farm.”

One example of this diversification is Chileno Valley Ranch, a 600-acre spread that sits in a broad valley between Petaluma and Tomales. As twilight throws a rosy glow on the surrounding hills, owner Mike Gale crosses a pasture to check on three 900-pound steers that have been put in a corral, ready to be shipped to slaughter in the morning. “Our main business is our beef business,” Gale says. “Everything else is secondary and complementary to the raising of beef.”

Yet the beef business that Gale runs along with his wife, Sally — who is the fifth generation of a local ranching family — is far from conventional. Instead of selling their cattle to brokers who fatten them up on feedlots as far away as Idaho or Oregon, the Gales sell a minimum of a quarter of an animal, and only to individuals. The steers stay on the property until they are sent to the slaughterhouse in Petaluma; customers can pick up their cut and wrapped steaks at Ibleto Meats in Cotati. A quarter of a steer yields about 100 pounds of steaks and other cuts and costs about $375 fully butchered.

“We learned within a year that the traditional model wasn’t going to work for us,” says Gale. “Ranching is a lot like biology: You have to evolve or die.” Since the couple moved to Marin in 1993, they have experimented with different ways to make ranching pay. Today they sell pasture-raised eggs, heritage breed pork, and lamb in addition to beef. During the fall, they also have a you-pick produce business. Visitors can drop by the farm on Sundays and harvest the certified organic apples, pears and tomatoes that grow in tidy rows in the lee of a weathered barn. “Basically we are selling a story — it’s the story of how we do ranching,” says Gale. “But if people don’t like your product you don’t have a business.”