Sierra Magazine


Where the Cows Come Home

One farm family shows how to work the land and save it, too

By Jennifer Hattam

If you’re going to experience farm life–even for a day–you’ve got to start out with a big farm breakfast. When I arrive at Ellen Straus’s home in rural west Marin County, California, she greets me warmly and offers a cup of coffee. I gratefully accept, mentioning that all the stores in my San Francisco neighborhood had been closed when I left that morning. Before I realize what’s happening, the 75-year-old grandmother has eggs frying on the stove, and a bounty of local delights–organic cottage cheese, fresh bread, homemade jam–covering the red and white checkered tablecloth, with water boiling in a cow-shaped kettle.

Scanning the kitchen as Ellen bustles about, I count six more cows: a blue and white ceramic dish on the table, a couple of refrigerator magnets, and a trio of colorful metal bovines frolicking across the wall. Ellen made the last three herself, just as she designed the cow logo on her T-shirt for the family business, the Straus Family Creamery.

Ellen’s husband, Bill, came to this bucolic spot on the shores of Tomales Bay in 1941 and started ranching with 23 dairy cows on 166 acres. On a trip east in 1950, he met Ellen, a young immigrant from Holland who had recently graduated from college. "I never knew a farmer before I married Bill," she laughs. "I had lived all my life either in Amsterdam or in New York City, so it was quite a change. But I loved it."

She learned to milk the cows, got used to sharing a phone line with half a dozen other households, and settled into the neighborliness of rural life. "One day, I went to Petaluma to go shopping and our neighbor complained to Bill afterwards that he had driven his truck down the street and I hadn’t greeted him," Ellen says. "I didn’t even know he was there. So for a while, I just started waving at everybody!"

In some ways, it seems the last half-century has brought few changes to this land of weathered fences and circling hawks. A lone oncoming driver waves as we pass each other on the narrow, winding country road to the creamery grounds. The rolling, verdant hills above Tomales Bay are dotted with cows and rocky outcroppings, and the little town of Marshall, where Ellen and Bill still live in a house built in 1864, has a population of 50. Stoplights are nonexistent, "Cow Xing" signs plentiful. It’s hard to imagine this place as anything but farmland. But not long ago, it looked like agriculture’s days in west Marin were numbered.

When Ellen arrived in 1950, there were 200 dairies in Marin County, a total that would drop precipitously over the next two decades. Larger operations in the state’s central valley could produce more milk, more cheaply, and booming urban populations were encroaching from the east and south. In 1967, Marin County envisioned 125,000 residents on 43,000 newly urbanized acres. Scenic Highway One, which clings to rugged cliffs over the crashing surf of the Pacific, was to become a four-lane parkway, and the serene two-lane road I had driven from the subdivided eastern portion of the county would have been replaced by a freeway. Worse yet, Ellen says, "the word agriculture was not mentioned. At all."

Instead of being outraged, many ranchers seemed resigned. "They thought the game was over–that agriculture was a goner," says Gary Giacomini, a member of the Marin County board of supervisors from 1972 to 1996 and the scion of a west Marin ranching family. "They’d seen it happen all over the Bay Area, with subdivisions coming in and ranchers being pushed out. So they weren’t keeping fences up, they were putting their ranches under option for development–you could see all over the county that they had given up the ghost."

"Some of our neighbors would say, ‘Well, you can’t stop progress,’" Ellen remembers.

"They didn’t think that they could stay, so they wanted to get as much as they could from developers." Not Ellen. The memory of her family’s emigration in 1940–"to escape Hitler," she says quietly–had stayed with her. "I couldn’t understand why such a man was allowed to become head of a country, to do the things he did, so I always wanted to be active in my community," Ellen says. "And I was selfish, too: I wanted to stay here. I felt that I had moved enough and I wanted to be able to continue this wonderful life."

Although just 60 miles north of San Francisco, Marshall seems a world apart. To the east rises Bolinas Ridge, home to both redwoods and ranches. On the shores of narrow Tomales Bay, small shops on rustic piers offer fresh oysters and clams from the estuary, now a national marine sanctuary. To the west, the fog-shrouded coastal wilderness at Point Reyes National Seashore harbors nearly two dozen threatened or endangered species. It’s easy to see why people fought so hard over the area’s future.

Long active in local Democratic Party politics, Ellen readily jumped into the planning battle. Bill did too, becoming the first farmer to join the Marin Conservation League. "The Strauses didn’t come from the traditional ranch families in Marin, many of which are in their fourth or so generation," notes Ralph Grossi, a dairy rancher from nearby Novato and the president of American Farmland Trust, a Washington, D.C.—based nonprofit that works to preserve agricultural lands. "They came from a different culture–they’re one of the few Jewish families in the area–and very often it’s people who come into a community without the baggage of having grown up there who can see the bigger picture."

The Strauses had already supported the 1962 creation of the national seashore, which they hoped would keep suburban development at bay. In the early ’70s, they spoke out in favor of a zoning plan that would limit new construction to one house per 60 acres. Bill and Ellen used to take their young children to meetings of the board of supervisors; their eldest son, Albert, by then a teenager, formed an ecology club at his high school and joined his parents in testifying before the board. Their activities made them unpopular with the neighbors, who feared that state and federal regulation would reduce the resale value of their land. "I remember Bill testifying before the board, and all the ranchers walked out," Ellen says. "I think some of them still haven’t forgiven us!"

"The Strauses had unbelievable courage to take those positions in those days," says Giacomini, who ran for supervisor in order to pass the zoning plan. "All the ranchers, including my blood relatives, hated me. They hated the new zoning because they thought their ship was about to come in. They had been struggling, and now, finally, they thought they were going to be able to sell their land. The one exception was Bill and Ellen Straus."

The new zoning laws passed, but the threat of sprawl didn’t. "Marin was still urbanizing–suburbanizing, I guess–incredibly fast," Ellen says. To her surprise, there was interest in dividing the land into 60-acre parcels and selling it for hobby farms. "That would really have killed agriculture," she says. Sixty acres may be enough to grow specialty crops in some places, but most of the Point Reyes area, with its cool summer temperatures and abundant grass, is grazing land. Keeping enough cows to make a living requires hundreds of acres.

Ellen and a biologist friend, Phyllis Faber, realized that farms needed permanent protection. "These were hard times for farmers: Their kids were going off to other careers, the price

of milk was terrible, there had been drought years where the county had to pitch in to support them," says Faber. "We needed to create long-term certainty so farmers and their children could stay on the farm." What the two women came up with was the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a nonprofit organization that would purchase development rights, or easements, from farmers and ranchers. Under this arrangement, the land itself remains privately owned, but the landowner agrees not to subdivide or develop the property, a promise that applies to all future owners as well. This approach had two clear advantages over buying the properties outright: It was cheaper, and, more important, it allowed working families to continue owning the land.

"At that time, there were a few hundred land trusts around the country, mostly focused on historic preservation, some on open lands," says Grossi, who helped Straus and Faber found the organization in 1980. But the idea of protecting farms in agricultural use was still in its infancy and, Grossi adds, "getting any ranch family to commit to permanently protecting their land, to putting a legal encumbrance on their land, was a big hurdle." Ellen and her allies secured significant grants from the San Francisco Foundation and the California Coastal Conservancy and worked slowly but steadily to gain the trust of farmers, without whom their voluntary plan could not succeed.

"For a while, MALT had money, but no takers," says Giacomini, who served on the organization’s founding board of directors. "Ranchers saw it as welfare, so they wouldn’t take it in a million years. The Strauses were one of the first ranchers to enter into a MALT contract. Eventually it was like an avalanche, a land rush. They realized you can have your cake and eat it too."

External pressures provided another incentive. With the California Coastal Commission talking about rezoning the coastal region to restrict development even further, farmers and ranchers became more receptive to the land trust, which would provide some form of compensation. And times, too, had changed. "In the fifties, a lot of young farmers had gone to the city, where they felt you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night, you don’t have to work nearly as hard, it’s easier to make money, and so on. But the city didn’t turn out to be all that terrific either," Ellen says. "So I think by the time we did the land trust, there were more young, educated farmers who wanted to come back to the ranch, who felt they had a future here."

For the Strauses, the future is their son Albert, who studied dairy science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in the 1970s and came back to run the then-struggling family business, which has now grown to 250 cows on 660 acres. Using the money from the family’s MALT contract, he leased a nearby creamery so the family could bottle their milk and make other dairy products. In 1993, he transformed the entire operation, creating the first certified organic dairy and creamery in the western United States. In keeping with the Straus sensibility, his sister Vivien is head of marketing and sales. (Brother Michael runs his own environmental public-relations firm in nearby Point Reyes Station, and sister Miriam grows organic shiitake mushrooms in New York.) Like his mother, Albert has always loved farm life. And like her, he has found that some of the best ways for farmers to stay afloat economically also happen to be good for the environment.

"In the last two years, seven or eight conventional dairy farms have gone out of business, all small family farms," Albert says. "If we hadn’t done the transition to organic, we would be like everyone else in our neighborhood: gone." Unlike conventional operations, which must shoulder increased production costs while facing stagnant milk prices, the Strauses have more flexibility because they control the entire process–from grazing cow to bottle of milk. They can also get a fair price because of the nature of their product. The organic dairy market is growing by 40 percent a year, creating a niche that has enabled the creamery to thrive. Its products are available at over 600 retail outlets, primarily in California, but also in nine other states. Supplied by their own cows and those from a neighboring organic farm, the Straus Family Creamery now sells more than one million bottles of organic milk a year, and their line has expanded to include chocolate milk, ice cream, butter, cheese, and yogurt.

Straus Sharp Cheddar may bear a higher price tag than Kraft Singles, but in the end, says Ellen, it costs less. "One of the biggest threats to small farmers is the unwillingness of the public to pay for the real cost of food," she says. "I myself was guilty of that at one time. When I first came here, there was never much money around. So I remember going to the grocery store and trying to get the cheapest food possible. I was very proud of how much I saved. But we do pay for it. If someone can grow a lot of food using pesticides, or commercial fertilizers, or who knows what, it’s going to take a toll on that land and on your water–on all the things you care about."

Albert is trying to reduce that cost by using old-fashioned returnable glass milk bottles instead of throwaway cartons, redesigning equipment to conserve water, keeping cows in open barns during the winter to prevent damage to the soil, using homeopathic remedies instead of antibiotics, even installing a methane converter that will eventually turn cow manure into electricity for the facility. He came back to the farm because he loved being independent and working outdoors, but supervising a modern dairy and creamery finds him more often in a lab coat and hairnet, monitoring fat content and inspecting machinery, or on the office phone, scouting out new feed sources or advising other small farmers who want to go organic.

"Most people have this very romantic idea about farming. They think farming never changes, and everything stays small," Ellen says. "It’s unrealistic. This is supposed to be a working landscape."

Those "working landscapes" may not meet some environmentalists’ images of pristine nature, but they’re just as important ecologically. "The environmental community has done an admirable job in protecting the ‘crown jewels,’ the Yosemites and the Yellowstones, but more than half of the landscape is in agriculture production," says Ralph Grossi. "If we don’t preserve those lands, we will have won the battle, but lost the war." His organization, the American Farmland Trust, works to protect land from subdivision and helps landowners become better stewards by teaching them how to cut chemical use and stop erosion. Since MALT was founded, Grossi has seen interest in its approach grow, with over 2.8 million agricultural acres now protected by land trusts nationwide.

"Whenever you look at successful trends or movements, you’ll almost always find that it comes down to a few key people who were catalysts, who made it happen," Grossi says. "Ellen is one of those people."

For all that hasn’t changed in west Marin, there are some notable differences. In Point Reyes Station, where you can get your morning coffee at the Bovine Bakery and work out at a fitness center housed in an old livery stable, MALT signs adorn store windows. The land trust has now protected more than 30,000 acres on 45 farms. On the wall of the inn where I stay hangs a poster commemorating the anniversary of the Wilderness Act. And courtesy of a friend, Albert Straus’s car bears a license-plate frame that reads, "Real dairymen wear Birkenstocks."

Marin’s truce between farmers and environmentalists seems to be evolving into a permanent peace, with both sides benefiting. "We’ve only been here for our generation and Albert’s, but other farmers have had a history here for much longer," Ellen says. "They love the land, and they love the independent life, and if they can make a living, they’ll stay."

Jennifer Hattam is Sierra’s associate editor.