In Farms We Trust—Land&People

Quite without warning, my heart is almost bursting with comfort today on Point Reyes. I have come home to the places where I rambled as a boy: the tawny northern California hills, the fog mist, redwood, fir, oak, and bay laurel woods, and creeks of what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. Then, these lands were mostly failing ranches on the verge of development; their future, in the late 1950s and 1960s, looked bleak. That the National Park Service by the 1980s was able, in the face of unrelenting pressure for development, to acquire a strip of coastal land running from San Francisco all the way to the Point Reyes peninsula was a miraculous piece of good fortune for all Americans. But as remarkable as this treasure I now walk upon is, it is not what catches my breath today.

When that happens, I am walking east on an old dirt road, carrying my baby daughter on my back, from the northern end of Inverness Ridge toward the shore of Tomales Bay, a jewel of an inlet that follows the San Andreas Fault between Point Reyes and the mainland. I have stopped in a stand of tall, dry weeds rattling in the wind by a fence, and I am looking beyond the park, to the far shore of the bay around the tiny fishing and farm town of Marshall, population 51. That's private land.

There, outside the curtilage of the federal government, as far as the eye can see, is a sweep of big hills—some would be called mountains in the East—a great draught of pale yellow curves, sinuous pillows of bay laurel woods that follow the drainages, and an unimpeded sky, all shining almost silver in the ocean light.

It is a view that has not changed since I first saw it more than 35 years ago, a space of time during which the population of California has more than doubled. These hills, with their commanding view of Tomales Bay, Point Reyes, and the Olema Valley to the south, would have commanded incalculable millions as sites for luxury homes. This land is only a little over an hour from San Francisco by car, and these days people commute twice that far from the outlying suburbs to jobs in Bay Area cities.

All the more remarkable, these hills I am drinking in are still working lands: dairy ranches, cattle and sheep operations. Not only do these lands produce sweet memories for national park visitors like me who see them across the bay; they make sweet grass, sweet milk and butter, soft-nosed calves, jobs organized around an ancient rhythm of rising early and working hard, and a bounty of air, light, breathing room, and solace.

The survival of these farmlands has been no accident; it was hard-won. It is one of the definitive examples of agricultural land preservation in the United States, a place anyone who is interested in the subject ought to see. Conservation of these lands has been the mission of an organization known as the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, MALT for short, supported at its inception by the Trust for Public Land.

Credited with the idea that led to MALT and its guiding spirit for nearly 20 years is Ellen Straus. She is the wife of dairy farmer Bill Straus and the mother of Albert, who now runs the family place as an organic dairy; Vivien, the farm's director of marketing; Michael, an organic farming advocate; and Miriam, a farmer and mother in New York.

I have history with these people. When, in my teens, my mother died suddenly, Bill and Ellen took me on as a ranch hand for a few weeks one spring. I was not the only half-broke waif to have taken up fence pliers and hay hooks there. There was, I learned later, a whole string of young men trying to figure themselves out while working on the Straus place. That's how Bill and Ellen are; their definitions of success and failure are not individual. If a boy fails alone, this line of thinking goes, his friends have failed. By the same token, if a family ranch can be thought of as a success, it must not be at the expense of the soil, the livestock, or the community.

We were up at 3:00 a.m. to wade through 160 Holsteins in the chutes of the milk barn. When the sun was up, we would come back to Ellen's linoleum-floored kitchen, where she would feed us a huge breakfast, with eggs from the chicken house you could see through the window over the sink. Bill would bring a stainless steel can of milk, which Ellen served up in a cool metal pitcher on a table covered in red-and-white gingham oilcloth.

In 1973, Bill and Ellen were in the same apparently hopeless trouble that a lot of farmers were in—the kind of trouble that has driven farm families out of business and their lands under the wheels of urban sprawl. Within the last decade, the U.S. government has quietly announced that it no longer keeps track of what tiny percentage of Americans feeds us all.

A lot of dairy people on the coast north of San Francisco regarded the eventual sale of their lands as inevitable, but the Strauses were not about to hang it up. It was love of the land that moved them—not just their own acres, but the whole bay and its panorama of windswept hills. "I still think how fortunate we are, just to live in a place like this," Ellen would tell me, years later. If the farms were threatened, she reasoned, the whole landscape was threatened. So while Bill was out working in the fields and barns, Ellen—between raising kids, paying bills, and feeding the family and hands—thought a lot about what to do about it.

When I come back to talk to the Strauses in the summer of 1999, nothing I can identify has changed at their 1864 farmstead, a two-story gable-roofed house with green shutters and a front porch covered with climbing roses. Bill and Ellen still come out to the porch when I drive up, instead of waiting inside for me to knock on the door. Behind the outbuildings there are still bits of broken farm machines overwhelmed by raspberry bushes full of songbirds. The Strauses invite me into the kitchen, which looks exactly the same.

Ellen is a rounded, apple-cheeked, friendly woman with curly gray hair. Bill, now in his mid-80s, sits down across from me at the table, still covered in that same red-and-white oilcloth. He is a small, sturdy man with clear, sharp, comprehending eyes; only recently, his daughter says, has Bill retired from lugging 90-pound feed sacks. He says little—he's been that way as long as I've known him; hard work was the way he spoke.

A German Jewish immigrant, Bill bought the first 166 acres and the rose-covered old house on the shore of Tomales Bay in 1941. After nine years of working the place alone, he married Ellen. By 1955 they had started a family and bought a neighboring ranch to bring the farm to its present 660 acres. Early on, Bill brought an important innovation to the area's dairies: when hundreds of cows were milked in concrete-floored barns and the solid wastes hosed out with water from nearby creeks, the water, carrying the manure, often made its way back into the creeks and from there to Tomales Bay. Bill built a collecting pond and started spreading the slurry back on his fields as fertilizer.

By the 1960s, as burgeoning postwar suburbs to the south and east began to lick at the west Marin farms, the Strauses, in addition to being full-time farmers, became full-fledged activists. They were openly in favor of the government's plan for a national park on Point Reyes, while many of their neighbors viewed the new federal presence with suspicion and hostility. Even worse, in the eyes of some neighbors, Bill and Ellen began to work with conservation groups to change the county's zoning rules so as to increase the minimum parcel size to which agricultural lands could be subdivided. This would make farmland unsuitable for high-density development, thereby keeping the price of farms that came up for sale within reach of farm families.

By the spring of 1973, when I worked at the Straus dairy, there was cause for encouragement. The county had zoned agricultural lands at a 60-acre minimum parcel size; state ballot measures had brought property-tax relief to farmers who promised to stay in business; and Ellen had worked on a successful campaign to elect Gary Giacomini, the first conservationist to represent the farms of west Marin, to the county board of supervisors. Looking back on those years, Giacomini would later tell me, "Marin County is on the edge of a megalopolis of some seven million people, and when I ran for supervisor in '72, agriculture was under enormous assault. It's largely because of the incredible vision and courage of Bill and Ellen Straus that this county turned the corner, held on to agriculture, and is saving it in perpetuity. Without them, this place would have gone the way of much of the Bay Area—just rows of subdivisions."

But still, farms were going down. It was a problem farmers faced individually, as managers, but also, as Ellen saw it, collectively. For the economic infrastructure upon which they all depend—feed suppliers, farm machine dealers, markets within trucking range—could not survive past a certain failure rate in the farms. A failure of one farm could spell the end for all.

In the case of the individual farm, it was son Albert who, in 1977, with the ink barely dry on a new state college degree in dairy science, stepped in to save the Straus farm. He took over managing the family's operation, subjecting everything to endless tweaking and experimentation. He began milking three times a day—a trick he had learned while studying dairies overseas. He installed a feed mill and began manufacturing his own feed. To conserve soil, he built loafing barns to keep his cows off the sod in the rainy season, and cultivated some of his feed crops without plowing. Then he made the difficult transition to becoming an organic farm—employing feed grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers, and administering no antibiotics or hormones to his animals. Finally, wanting more control over quality and price—and the profit someone else was making from his cows—Albert started his own creamery, where he now packages four different kinds of milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, and—soon, he thinks—ice cream. Today the Straus Family Creamery brand grosses some $3.5 million in sales.

The second problem—how farms could collectively stay in business—was Ellen's department. Ellen began collaborating with her friend, biologist and State Coastal Commissioner Phyllis Faber. "What we needed was something that could protect farmland forever from subdivisions—something like a land trust," Ellen recalls. In 1978, Straus and Faber went to TPL for advice.

Before MALT, there had never been a land trust exclusively to protect agricultural lands. TPL's Jennie Gerard remembers: "Ellen had a clear vision from the start of what was needed. When Ellen has a picture, everyone gets on her bandwagon. TPL knew a lot about land trusts for conservation but had never applied these principles to working lands. We learned about it together."

Today, almost 20 years after the Marin Agricultural Land Trust was formed, it holds conservation easements on 40 properties totaling 26,600 acres, or some 20 percent of the remaining agricultural land in the county. A private entity that purchases conservation easements—the rights to develop a farm—and then holds them in perpetuity, MALT provides the farmer with a surrogate for sellout money. MALT's involvement in the lives of farmers is uninvasive, supportive, and purely voluntary. "We make them aware of us; then we let them come to us when we are needed," says MALT's executive director, Bob Berner. And when MALT is needed—such as when a young farmer inherits a farm with a pile of taxes and other siblings who want to be bought out—its conservation easements can mean the difference between selling out or taking up the family business.

To see Albert Straus working in the family business, I rise at 3:30 a.m. There is no moon; the miles of hills around the Straus place are a black bulk against the deep blue sky and the stars. I can see only two lights upon them, the big industrial lamps of the milking barns.

Following Albert's directions, I drive north along the water to a couple of nondescript, pea-soup-colored, steel buildings at an old ranch. From the gray light and barn swallow calls of dawn, I step inside through a tray of boot-disinfectant into a brightly lit realm of spotless stainless steel tanks, machines, and serpentine pipes. Loud salsa music booms from speakers on the ceiling. Young Mexican workers in white suits move quickly around the room, tending the machines. To my left, a train of old-style refillable glass milk bottles clinks past on a conveyor belt.

Albert Straus, at 44, is barrel-chested, with a curly head and beard of graying hair and a taciturn, matter-of-fact farmer's manner. He has collected these machines from all over the United States; it isn't easy to find machines that wash and fill glass milk bottles. But the bottles, says Albert, go around between the creamery and consumers an average of eight times before they break or are lost. Albert has got his bottle-washing machine using only a fraction of the water it once did, and he recycles the water for other uses.

Back at the house, I tell Ellen and Bill how impressed I am with the improvements Albert has made. Ellen admits she and Bill made some mistakes while learning to farm their place. "We were different from some of the other families here," she explains. "We were the first generation on our land. Albert got to improve on what we did."

Each generation, she explains, has an opportunity to use the specific knowledge of farming gained the hard way by the preceding one. She leans forward just slightly, making sure I am hearing her now. "If a family leaves its farm, they take with them all this knowledge, things someone would need to know if they wanted to farm there again. So you see, that's why we have not only to save the land; we have to save the families who farm it."

And, looking out the kitchen window at the hills, I do see.

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Jordan Fisher-Smith's nonfiction about people and nature has appeared in various magazines and in the recent anthology Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion (Sasquatch, 1999).