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Till life: Marin History Museum's latest exhibit shows why our county ag industry hasn't, er...bought the farm

by Samantha Campos, Pacific Sun link to article
Friday, March 6, 2009

Museums are supposed to be the places where we visit relics of the past: ceremonial objects from ancient indigenous peoples...Flemish triptychs of 15th-century Europe...model trains of America's bygone railroad heyday...
But as one browses past the rusted farm equipment, frayed clothing and aged photos of the Marin History Museum's 2009 exhibit "Growing the Future: Farming Families of Marin," it's apparent there's more to see than pages from the farmers' almanacs of yesteryear.
This time capsule casts more than shadows of forgotten ancestors.
While it's true that much of Marin's heritage and identity has its seeds in the farming and agricultural communities of the early 20th century, that identity's present reality isn't so easily defined.
But what a visit to "Growing the Future" harvests—perhaps more so than a Sunday excursion to West Marin or a discussion about greenhouse gases with your locavore-lovin' neighbor—is that Marin's agricultural community is plowed deeper than the shops on Bridgeway or the warehouses on Andersen Drive would lead us to believe. And while the branches of the Marin farming community may have been trimmed over the years, its roots may reach farther, its trunk growing stronger than ever before.
But the question begged by any exhibit titled "Growing the Future" is, of course, what will the next century hold for Marin County agriculture? At the museum we can see its past through sepia-tinted photos and yellowing papers, but can we look toward its future with rose-colored glasses?
• • • •
A HUNDRED YEARS ago, America was in many ways still a farming country—more than 30 percent of the population were farmers. Since then, while our national population has tripled, our farming workforce has dwindled down to a paltry 1 percent—a percentage that also includes agricultural laborers. And that's not all—80 percent of those jobs today occur off-farm.
Meanwhile, the industrialization of our food supply has led to a growing dependence on mass-production and dirt-bottom prices, with a largely (if not completely) depleted knowledge of where the ingredients in our daily meals actually come from.
In the postwar years of the 1950s and '60s, once viable ag lands gave way to highways, urban sprawl and commercial developments. And as an added bonus to the country's food industrialization, we've seen a prolific increase in nationwide health problems, destructed environment and diminished resources.
Despite this, today more than half of Marin County land is zoned for agriculture and open space. Currently there are 276 farms and ranches—many are third- and fourth-generation family-owned operations—spread out over 167,000 acres.
For over 150 years, farming has been a cornerstone of Marin—and its continued survival could set the precedent for national food policy reform and sustainability.
But 5 percent of the county's farms are lost every year, due to drought, increased oil prices and loss of land.
In the Oct. 9 issue of the New York Times, author and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan wrote: "we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." He said the current food system represents a government-sponsored "shift from solar and human energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy," producing "monocultures of corn and soy" and "cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat" in great abundance.
After World War II, farmers were encouraged to vastly increase their productivity, utilizing oil and nerve-gas converted into chemical fertilizers in order to sell cheap grain for substantially less than it cost to grow, subsidized by a friendly government check. This also enabled feedlots to churn out more meat and dairy—and waste that, though formerly used to fertilize the farmlands, was now left unutilized at the factories; it became one of our biggest pollutants.
Though which came first—the ag community's government-encouraged shift toward soy and corn or the American consumer's demand for fast, cheap and tasty meal deals—is a chicken and egg debate best left to historians.
• • • •
AGRICULTURE IS CALIFORNIA'S biggest industry, providing a quarter of the nation's food and 40 percent of its fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as accounting for $36.6 billion in revenue in 2007, according the United States Department of Agriculture. But the number of farms operating in the state fell to less than 4 percent of the national total, and ag lands dropped down to less than half a percent from the previous year's acreage.
And yet agriculture in Marin County increased in total production value—one of only a handful of counties in the state to rank higher from 2006 to 2007.
Much of Marin's ability to sustain its remaining agricultural industry can be attributed to the success of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, an agency designed to protect extant farmlands from the scourge of all late-20th century farmlands—sale for development. Co-founded by Phyllis Faber and dairywoman Ellen Straus in 1980, MALT has permanently protected more than 40,000 acres of Marin farmland, including 63 family farms and ranches. But MALT associate director Elizabeth Ptak says there are still 60,000 acres that need to be protected, with the cooperation of landowners. "Our goal is to have all farmland protected—and the county has been supportive. But that's not permanent, you know," she says in reference to shifting political winds that come with changes on the county board of supervisors.
But federal help is hopefully on the way. Since the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May, the USDA is supposedly working to facilitate more support for local and specialty crops, farmers markets, renewable energy and biotechnology funding, improvements to low-income and school nutrition programs, and provide a safety net for farmers who experience losses beyond their control. In its January 2009 progress report, the USDA stated that additional Farm Bill funding was made available for conservation programs, including $200 million for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers and ranchers nationwide solve natural resources problems; $150 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program; and $7.5 million for Agricultural Management Assistance; along with an additional $4 billion for conservation programs in the coming fiscal year.
On the consumer level, an increased interest in where our food comes from—and whether it's locally grown, seasonal and organic—has helped keep the multigenerational farms in Marin running, provided they implement modern tactics as well. One of the most successful of these, 68-year-old Straus Family Creamery in Tomales, has not only maintained its small, family-run status, but it's also become more profitable by learning to diversify and market itself as a local, organic and sustainable dairy; Straus is a significant part of the annual $36 million dairy biz in Marin. "For us, it was about doing something different from conventional industry—in a way that wouldn't stress the land or people," says Albert Straus, son of founding farmers Bill and Ellen. "We became organic, developed our own product line, defined markets and set prices, while we worked on sustainability and animal husbandry, having a sound economic plan and keeping on top of it."
Ecologically sound innovations are also the wave of the farming future. Since Albert took over, he implemented reusable glass bottles, developed a methane digester that converts animal-produced waste (that's cow poop to you) into 90 percent of the farm's power needs, uses fully electric trucks (powered by the cows to feed the cows) and is constantly working toward the minimization of waste and water use. "The idea that farms get bigger is not sustainable anymore."
Other farmers have followed suit. Some more directly than others.
In the 2008 University of California documentary Hidden Bounty of Marin: Farm Families in Transition, Peggy Smith and Sue Conley tell of how they began Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, making award-winning farmstead and artisan cheeses utilizing Straus Family milk—and philosophy. In the film, the two women said they started making cheese with the Straus milk because, in the end, they liked its taste—explaining that cheese is all about the milk, and milk is all about the grass and the animal greens and the feed, and so on. But it wasn't only Albert Straus's milk that came in handy, but his advice: Straus told them that unless Smith and Conley had a marketing niche—a niche specific to the West Marin ag community—they could not survive. And with 2 million visitors a year to Point Reyes National Seashore, they figured that if people could see that cheese was being made there—with the cows in plain view on the hill—it would be an excellent first step in that marketing program.
Because of Marin's unique topography—rolling hills, nonprime soils, abundant shoreline property and lack of natural water supply—agriculture is limited when it comes to row crops. Diversification and consumer-driven product is key, as is the case with established farmer Warren Weber of Bolinas-based Star Route Farms, the oldest continuously certified organic farm in the state. Weber manages to grow salad greens, lettuce, leafy greens, cool-weather vegetables, herbs and edible flowers and is considered the "grandfather of organic farming." He is also optimistic about the local growth and eco-lution of farming practices, noting in the Hidden Bounty doc that there are now 52 certified organic farms on 19,000 acres in Marin. "Agriculture is really about the community—we're just the farmers," he says. "The truth is we are really stewards, serving the needs of the plants trying to grow to become food for the table for people to eat."
The Coast Miwok were the pre-European stewards of this land, thousands of years before European settlers arrived. In "Growing the Future: Farming Families of Marin," many reproductions of the kinds of tools and traps the native peoples used are on display, exemplifying the value they associated with the land on which they lived. Then in the early 1800s, European immigrants and the first Mexican land grantees arrived, establishing Point Reyes as dairy central. Before long, dairy farmers from Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Northern Europe moved in ("mooved" in?) and by the mid-1870s, Marin was the largest butter-making domain in the world. By 1900 there were nearly 1,000 dairies in the county.
Education curator at the museum Kelly Brisbois hopes the exhibit will serve to connect Marinites to local food providers and the legacy of third- and fourth-generation farmers in Marin.
Not only is her ambition educational, it's also timely.
"It's very much a part of Marin's identity," she says. "And with the rate of loss of agricultural farmland—with it being paved over—this is a story of survival." She likens today's farmers with the pioneers of yesterday who forged through tough times, surviving immigration from their native countries and establishing roots from scratch. "These lands are a natural resource. We could have called this exhibit the 'Grasslands of Marin.' Ranchers still rely on this natural resource, which is why we can support organic dairy farming and beef cattle."
West Marin's foggy, moist coastal lands provide quality pastures for grazing dairy, beef cattle and sheep. The first ranchers were the San Rafael missionaries, who raised longhorn cattle, ranging almost 40 miles out and as far west as Point Reyes. Today, livestock makes up 80 percent of the county's agricultural production.
Marin has 70 miles of open coastline and 40 miles of San Francisco Bay-lined acreage. Oyster culture is the oldest aquaculture industry in California, dating back to the 1850s, and is Marin's third most productive ag industry behind livestock and dairy. Marin is second only to Humboldt Bay in shellfish production—a $2.6 million industry thanks to seven tideland farmers in Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero. And like their land-devoted counterparts, these water-based farmers also recognize the connection between the condition of their substrata and the quality of their product. "The bay's health is linked to the watershed health, and we're all working together to make our streams healthier," says John Finger of Hog Island Oyster Company. "Not just for the oysters, but for salmon, steelhead and all the other reasons we need healthy streams."
• • • •
TODAY'S FARMING OFTEN requires proficiency in genetics, nutrition, business, marketing and mechanical repair. And what generally—and happily—happens is that the children and grandchildren of Marin's pioneering farmers leave for college only to return from the city with their degrees and a renewed passion for rural life and the family business. The result is a new crop of farmers who appreciate the traditions of their grandparents, while utilizing the technology and sustainability practices of modern agriculture.
One of these farmers, featured in "Growing the Future," is Jesse Kuhn of Marin Roots Farm along San Antonio Creek in Petaluma. After working through a small agricultural program at Humboldt State, Kuhn rented a 10-acre pasture from the Volpi Dairy as a year-round operation devoted to organic produce. Aside from trying to create a "really healthy soil" using compost, horse and goat manure, Kuhn conserves soil and water with a series of ditches bordering his field, channeling excess runoff into his water supply. And yet his goals are more communally inclusive. "I would like to see Marin agriculture feed a lot more of the local population...at least having the capability of feeding its own county from what's grown here. We're going to need a lot more farmers."
Another young farmer, Loren Poncia, is a fourth-generation member of the Eugene Poncia Ranch in Tomales—a 750-acre spread that operated as a dairy until 1991 and has been in his family since 1915, with support from MALT. Now concentrating on raising beef cattle, Poncia says he's passionate about what he does, about working on the ranch where he grew up and "being able to produce a wholesome product."
It's more than likely that in the years to come, there will be a greater demand for knowledgeable and productive farmers. Poncia believes the best way to procure an interest in ag is through education at an early age—teaching kids about where their food comes from, promoting farm tours and edible landscaping, along with the inception of programs like the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, and various farm-to-school and school gardens throughout Marin. But for most of the new crop of Marin farmers who grew up on the family ranch, they simply go to work.
Martin and Sally Pozzi have raised two children on their 1,125-acre Pozzi Ranch in Tomales. And in "Marin Farm Families"—a supporting document to the Marin Countywide Plan 2006—the Pozzis express the interrelated lessons their kids have learned as a result. "Because our children work with us, they learn about life cycles, the laws of nature and how things work. They know how to raise animals, how to feed and care for them, how animals are born, that the birthing process includes risk, how and why we need to vaccinate, how to drive a vehicle, how to make water work and that, if we have to, we can survive without electricity."
Mike and Sally Gale, whose 600-acre Chileno Valley Ranch north of Novato has been in the family since 1862, are fifth-generation farmers who realize the economic success and long-term survival of their family farm depends on the surrounding land and waterways, as well as the diversification of their products and services. They, too, hope that the future of farming in Marin will remain fertile—they'll continue to milk the bounty of our ag lands, provided we, as a community, don't drop the bucket. "With the cooperation of the county, the existing agencies, the countless ranchers who are well-educated, creative and want to see agriculture succeed here in the county—if we can't do it here, I'm not sure where it can be done."
As Ptak notes, Marin's grasslands hold immeasurable value not only as a viable resource, but also as a contributor to our quality of life. "How do we create a language for the land and also protect it? Farmland also serves as a wildlife corridor and habitat.
"It's beauty you can't quite qualify, but would surely miss when it's gone."
Current and upcoming farming events:
• "Growing the Future: Farming Families of Marin" exhibit, through Jan. 2010 at the Marin History Museum's Boyd Gate House galleries, 1125 B St., San Rafael, 415/454-8538, www.marinhistory.org.
• "The Fine Art of Marin Agriculture: Landscape and Portrait Photography" by Ken Smith. Through March 12 at Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael, www.falkirkculturalcenter.org.
• "Geography of Hope Conference: Celebrating Writing on Farming and Rural Life." March 20-22. Chaired by author and organic peach farmer David Mas Masumoto; sponsored in part by MALT. For info, visit www.malt.org.
• "Going Green in Marin: Land, Water, Food and Sustainability" panel discussion. Apr. 4 at Dominican University, Angelico Hall, 50 Acacia Ave., San Rafael.