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Two Farms, Ten Years After

old school plowing_cropped
While watching Loren Poncia move healthy, organic grass-fed steers through economically sound, well farmed pastures, I noted how similar the grass conditions matched the photos taken by Marin's first Farm Advisor, M.B. Boissevain, of "deferred grazing".  Mr. Boissevain used to say, "Grow two blades of grass where you used to grow one", and encouraged the development of on-farm feed stocks. Al and Loren Poncia have taken Mr. Boissevain's advice to a new level. Working with Stephanie Larson, UCCE Livestock Advisor, staff from the Marin Resource Conservation District, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Poncias developed a systematic way to grow grass fed cattle on 2000 acres and earn a living, by combining direct market opportunities with their conventional cattle business.

The operation includes well managed riparian pastures that also provide a wildlife refuge. A significant change from some of the not-so-friendly-farming practices of the early years of our "agricultural exploration," when we over-farmed hillsides and such. The Poncias have invested in a solid, well-designed, fencing program that allows cattle to migrate from pasture to pasture in rotation.  This increases the need for water distribution. Loren said, "What we really need to focus on right now, is watering the cows. With all these pastures, we have to keep up with the watering."

A scene from Stemple Creek Ranch.

Loren has the energy and vision of the early pioneer ranch families, that settled Marin. Such ranchers and farmers are not averse to risk, once they know the odds. The early adopters that forged the grass fed links to both old and new markets were willing to bet that local, sustainably grown and handled livestock products would pay off. In all cases, lamb, goat, beef, chicken, rabbit and turkey, it paid off. Stemple Creek Ranch organic and grass fed beef is a very popular product.

The Poncia family is restoring their Gericke Road Ranch. One prominent feature of the renovation is Ramini Mozzarella, a water buffalo milk Mozzarella cheese operation, now living in the old dairy barn. Craig Ramini, owner and cheese maker, has brought his herd of water buffalo to the ranch, renovating a small artisan creamery similar to small creameries active in Boissevains time. Loren set out thirty apple and pear trees, the day his second daughter was born, and wants to plant more. "I want this place to produce like they did in my grandpa's time. This whole ranch used to have apples and pears, and we even had some good peaches. I want to restore that."

The positive can-do energy we need to overcome obstacles to sensible agricultural production, is well endowed in the new generation of farmers and ranchers. "I have a hard time understanding why more people aren't doing this. This is exciting, and kind of cool," Loren added. He has plans to develop the ranch over the next ten years, replicating, in a modern way, the working extended family ranch life of past generations. Big visions just like his ancestors.

This example of a new generation of farmers and ranchers is inspiring. With the resources of the traditional farm families, these young agriculturists are taking the best of their heritage and forging new marketing pathways into a ready to buy market.

Just 10 miles down the road, Jan and Lou Lee are three and a half years into a local Tomales artisan hard cider operation on four acres of the old Cerini Ranch. Cider used to be a staple in early American farm systems. It is said, that, the fresh apple juice was stored in the unlocked cellar, and the kids could get to it. Then the alcohol content began to rise, and fathers would lock the root cellar and keep the key on their key ring, frequenting the dark, cool, caves for a little refreshment. After a few months, father would unlock the cellar and then grandmother would be the only visitor, using the apple cider vinegar for cooking and cleaning.

Apple Garden Farm cider, coming soon.
Apple Garden Farm cider, coming soon.
The Lees’ cider shop goes way beyond the old cider cellar. Jan has picked very specific old-fashioned cider varieties to blend and create a Tomales terroir in their first real vintage. "We harvest at different brix levels, like wine grapes." she said, "These aren't table apples. We are after the subtle flavors that the old fashioned, tart cider apples can produce."

Unlike dessert or table fruit, the trees are not hard pruned, producing tons of small fruit, which is more flavorful than the thinned, groomed fruit we eat for the table. Every step of the growing cycle is managed in a special way to capture the flavors of apples grown in our coastal clime.

The turnkey operation is a sophisticated version of what used to happen all over America; farmstead product serving local families with a distinctly personalized idea. Like artisan and farmstead cheeses, local Russelberries and Drakes and Tomales Bay shellfish, the addition of Apple Garden Farm Cider continues to fill out a West Marin collection of authentic food.

This year, the Lees will release their first vintage - 2011 Apple Garden Farm Cider. You can reach them through their website - www.applegardenfarm.com.