Marin IJ Articles
October 27, 2008
West Marin’s 276 farms and ranches comprise half the land in our County and pump $50 million into our local economy every year. Farming in west Marin is a combination of old-fashioned hard work and modern-day know-how, with techniques that achieve the exact goal urged by food expert and zealot Michael Pollan: “weaning the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and putting it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.”
You’re invited to view this sunshine-driven process in action when the UC Cooperative Extension presents its documentary, The Hidden Bounty of Marin, on November 6 at 7 p.m. in the Livermore Room at the Marin Art and Garden Center. This production allows us City Folk the chance to take a peek at our neighbors’ life on the farm and on the ranch. This 30-minute video is a perfect family outing.
Get to know the farmer behind your food
Knowing your farmer is undoubtedly better—and more fun—than relying on the faceless USDA stamp. Underneath that Cowgirl Creamery wrapper are two women with a passion for cheese and Albert Straus, a dairy farmer who provides the delicious, organic milk to feed that passion. Likewise, Marin Sun Farms’ Dave Evans and Chileno Valley Ranch’s Mike and Sally Gale know all about the taste, health, and environmental benefits of grass fed beef. Hidden Bounty reminds us that behind every locally-grown radicchio leaf, slider, and rack of lamb, there is a hard-working farmer whose livelihood depends on your support.
And perhaps the best way to show your support is at your local farmer’s market. You may think it’s just a tedious every-Thursday item on your to-do list, but shopping at your farmer’s market is critical to the financial health of our farmers. Many of Marin’s farmers and ranchers make regular appearances at local farmers’ markets. It’s the perfect place to introduce yourself and personally thank your local farmer, whose history most likely reaches back many generations.
Marin’s Deep Agricultural Roots
The majority of Marin’s farmers and grandfarmers are third and fourth-generation, family owned operations. In the early 1800s, Marin was settled by the Mexicans who raised thousands of longhorn cattle that were eventually driven to the gold country during the rush of 1849. Shortly after, Marin’s dairy industry was born. Since this was before the advent of refrigeration, all milk was churned into butter (milk bottles were not invented until 1894, making handling and distribution much easier). Bolinas and Tomales were shipping ports for this milk and other agricultural products such as potatoes, grains, and clams. Olema and Nicasio were early trading centers. The North Pacific coast railroad of 1870 brought more food to more people, as did new agricultural techniques recommended by experts in the early 1900s.
It wasn’t until the mid to late 1900s that Marin’s farmland began to shrink. Since 1959, Marin has lost 32,000 acres of agricultural land, almost 20 percent of today’s total farming and ranchland. In the early 1970s, plans to build a major highway through Marin’s western heartland threatened this already dwindling agricultural land.
In 1980 a group of ranchers and environmentalists formed the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT)—the first land trust in the U.S. dedicated to protecting farmland. Today, this dedicated group is responsible for permanently protecting over 40,000 acres of land on 63 family farms and ranches.
Greener Greens, Cluckier Chickens
. Foggy, moist marine conditions extend west Marin’s grass season, creating an almost year-round smorgasbord for grazing dairy cows, beef cattle, and sheep. In fact, milk production is west Marin’s primary agricultural product and livestock production is the second largest. Today, Marin dairies provide 20 percent of the Bay Area’s milk. But what you don’t see (or smell) in our western rolling hills are gigantic feedlots where animals are moaning, not roaming. This documentary explains how west Marin’s farmers find it best to “let the livestock live natural lives,” whether it’s free range chickens or free wheeling pigs.
On water, the same principles apply. Thanks to its 70 mile coast line, Marin County is the second most prolific producer of shellfish in the state, including oysters, clams, and mussels. Many of these crustaceans, such as the oysters that are harvested by Hog Island in Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero, take two to three years to be ready for market. No fertilizers or foods are used to plump up these delicacies. The natural tidal ebbs and flows give them everything they need to grow from tiny specks to high-end hors d’oeuvres.
Many of these appetizers also include some of west Marin’s specialty herbs, cut flowers, and heirloom vegetables and fruits. Green rolling hills and coastal bluffs are great for sightseeing, but the growing grounds are in the fertile valleys below, where heritage apples, echinacea, and pinot noir grapes flourish in the rich alluvial soils, and some of the Bay Area’s top chefs rely on the expansive and unique collection of prized produce to create their culinary masterpieces. Like the healthy landscapes from which they were derived, these food creations are a reflection of the skill and dedication of Marin’s top-notch farmers.