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The grass isn't always greener

Lack of spring rain has county ranchers at an udder loss…

by Peter Seidman
Pacific Sun Staff - May 30, 2008 

It's never easy making a living from Mother Nature, but this year Marin beef and dairy ranchers are facing some especially tough challenges.

"It's like a perfect storm," says Steve Quirt, the organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator for Marin. First, gas and oil prices have been inflating the cost of feed production and transportation. Second, the push to use corn to produce ethanol has inflated prices for feed. Third, extremely low spring rainfall has dried up the grass that many ranchers in Marin rely on to nourish animals.

"It's the worst grass year any us of can recall," says Dominic Grossi, who runs a dairy and beef operation in Novato. The fourth-generation rancher adds that even "when you talk to guys in their 70s and 80s, nobody can recall such a limited amount of grass. And it's not just that there's less grass. It's that it's already gone."

In a normal year, ranchers start to get low on grass in July, but, says Grossi, "We're in May, and it's gone."

Total rainfall in Marin has been close to normal this year. Marin reservoirs actually are at usual levels for late May, according to the Marin Municipal Water District. But it's when the rain fell that's causing concern among ranchers.

Winter storms pelted the county in January and February, filling the reservoirs enough so that rationing is not in the picture for MMWD customers, although the Water District continues to call for voluntary water cutbacks as a matter of course and conservation.

After the storms in January and February, the rainfall spigot shut off almost completely, spritzing Marin just a few times in March, April and May. According to the Water District, "March and April produced the driest spring since 1879, when MMWD started keeping records." The Mt. Tamalpais watershed received only 2/3 of an inch of rainfall in those two months, compared with an average rainfall of 11.3 inches.

The county did see some rain in May, but not enough and too late to help ranchers. The problem, says Grossi, is that the early rains in January and February--followed by a warm spell--created perfect conditions for sprouting grass. But when the rain spigot shut off, the grass had insufficient moisture to keep growing.

"The cows ate what was there," says Grossi, "and no rain followed as it usually does in the early spring, so it's just gone."

The low grass yield is affecting the county's 159 beef cattle and sheep grazing operations. It's also affecting dairy ranchers who graze their animals in addition to giving them purchased feed.

In addition to the beef and sheep operations, Marin also is home to 28 dairy ranches, a number that includes two goat dairies. Dairy is by far the greatest source of revenue in Marin agriculture, accounting for about $27 million in 2006, or about 55 percent of total agricultural production in the county.

Of the 43 counties in the state that produce milk, Marin ranks 15th. Livestock, including beef ranches, is the second largest agricultural producer in the county.

Agriculture has always been an integral part of Marin life. As early as 1820, longhorn cattle ran the hills of Marin along with tule elk. Settlers relied upon the cattle for hide and tallow. After missionaries forced the native Coastal Miwok tribes into missions, the cattle ended up on ranchos.

When the 1849 gold rush hit, Marin cattle were taken to the gold fields. After the gold rush ended, local ranchers introduced American stock in Marin to replace the long-gone native elk and the Mexican cattle that previously comprised the local stock. That was when Marin's dairy industry was born, with new farms stretching from Sausalito to West Marin on land owned by a San Francisco law firm.

By 1862, Marin was producing a quarter of the butter for California. Bolinas and Tomales were busy shipping ports for agricultural products such as potatoes, fruits and grains, as well as cheese and butter. In 1870, the North Pacific Railroad hauled agricultural products from Marin for transportation to San Francisco.

By the 20th century, agriculture in the Bay Area had been pushed to the back seat, and Marin suffered from the trend. Between 1949 and 1982, hundreds of thousands of agricultural acres were lost in the Bay Area, and Marin was in on the trend, its population growing, and housing becoming the priority. A 1944 census showed 1,800 ranches in Marin.

In the 1970s, a proposed project called for a highway to extend the 101 corridor all the way to West Marin. Had that happened, coastal agriculture would have been overrun by housing developments. The county reacted with a zoning plan that still prevents that sort of runaway growth. The new plan, along with the creation of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, helped slow the decline of farming and ranching in West Marin.

Although county planning provisions blocked rampant development, ranching and farming in Marin still faced critical marketplace challenges. When Supervisor Steve Kinsey was elected to represent West Marin, he took up the cause of the agricultural community.

Kinsey sold the rest of the Board of Supervisors on the idea that there was a crisis in West Marin and the county needed to step forward and act to support farmers and ranchers. The county became one of the first in the country to have its own organic certification process.

"When Steve Kinsey was elected, we had this big ag summit," says Ellie Rilla, county director of the Marin County Cooperative Extension, part of the University of California's agricultural outreach program. "We brought everybody together, and we talked about everything we needed to do if ag was to survive. And then (Kinsey) put together this group of ag leaders."

The group recommended means and methods to underpin the ranching and farming community in Marin. One of the recommendations was for the county to appoint an agricultural ombudsman and coordinator who could help local farmers and ranchers diversify their operations.

The idea is that a ranch or farm with a diversified range of crops and products is better able to withstand tight times—-like the one ranchers now face with low rainfall, insufficient grass yield, and rising fuel and feed costs.

Rilla received a three-year grant from the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation to fund the coordinator position. The grant was part of $450,000 the foundation awarded to the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

Through the program, the money went to Marin, Humboldt, Stanislaus and Ventura counties. In Marin, the Heller grant money funded the position that Steve Quirt still holds as organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator. He still holds the position thanks in large part to the commitment of the county Board of Supervisors to continue supporting forward-thinking methods of agricultural production.

The Heller grant only funded the job for three years. When time was up a few years ago, "The Board of Supes stepped up," Rilla says, and agreed that Quirt's job was important enough for the county to pay for it and make it a permanent position.

One of the key roles that Quirt has taken on is acting as a resource for farmers and ranchers seeking to diversify their operations. He also is a strong backer of the organic movement in Marin.

And that's quite a movement. Starting back a decade or so ago, with acreage measured in the mere hundreds, there are now 17,420 acres of organic fruits and vegetables grown in Marin. And that number, adds Rilla, is from January. She takes the organic pulse of the county once a year, and, she says, the acreage probably is even larger now.

Growing organic produce on a ranch that previously just ran cattle is one way agricultural producers in Marin can weather marketplace storms—-or spring droughts. Quirt mentions the case of a rancher who has a problem with low grass yield, but it's offset at least in part by "a booming strawberry crop."

Like the organic growers, innovative dairies have found a successful new market. Their success lies in making their own cheese. They have a ready market in Bay Area "food communities." Rather than have the price of their products set by the market when they sell milk, for instance, the dairy operators who produce value-added commodities can take back some of the pricing momentum.

"There are three populations in Marin," says Quirt. "There's the traditional farming, dairy and ranching population. There are the innovative organic and niche marketers, like Star Route Farms. And then there are the new-entry guys coming in." Two of those new-entry operations are goat dairies, operations with an eye toward producing, what else? Cheese.

It's the cheese that has made Marin "the Normandy of the north," says Rilla. Dairies that have diversified and gone down the value-added road have survived and thrived, even as the number of dairies in the Marin/Sonoma milkshed has declined.

In addition to the low grass yield, economic pressure on ranchers and dairies these days comes from a one-two punch courtesy of high transportation costs and high feed costs. The dry spring in Marin means that ranchers and dairies must move to buying feed much earlier in the year than usual. And that costs extra money.

Added to the mix is additional upward pressure on feed prices caused by what some say is a misguided move to produce ethanol from corn. The net energy gain, they say, is negligible, if there's any at all, and the resulting higher corn prices offset perceived gains.

The production of ethanol caused corn prices to increase, and increasing corn process have triggered higher prices for other feed grains. The problem is more acute for ranchers who run beef cattle because they rely more on grazing than dairies. But the problem is big enough for dairy operators like Grossi to be concerned.

"Ranchers are faced with a dilemma, especially beef ranchers, of whether or not to even buy hay because the value of the hay is so expensive versus the value of the increased weight gain you would get from the animals." The cost of hay doesn't justify the return, Grossi says. "A lot of [beef] ranchers are going to be selling cows they never would have sold before."

After thinning their herds, beef ranchers will use the next few years to build back their stock. The dairy industry works differently, Grossi points out, and that means that most dairy ranchers in Marin "probably will go ahead and buy feed and try to maintain the number of cows we milk. In the beef industry, it doesn't make sense if the amount of money you put into them is not what you're going to get back later."

Quirt has been working as the sustainable agriculture coordinator for seven years now. "When I first came," he says, "you didn't see too many examples of diversification. Just a few pioneers. But now, all these guys are looking at it. They're serious. It's a pretty amazing thing that's happening in our little county because we've got the innovators. But we're also getting the traditional guys starting to look at ways to do it. They looked at it, and they're picking it up."

Like many agricultural producers, traditional ranchers and farmers in Marin tend to be somewhat conservative. "You would be, too," says Rilla, "if you made your living through the travails of working with nature. But they watch what their neighbors are doing."

Especially in a year like this one.