The forward-thinking farmers of Marin
Photos by Tim Porter
Food fosters community. That’s what Mickey Murch says. He’s a young organic farmer from Bolinas, the tiny West Marin town that, as much as any place in California, embraced the practices of organic farming long before it was fashionable. His avowal is just three little words, but they encompass a huge idea: the connection between food and community, between farmer and family, between land and table. Organic Marin: Recipes from Land to Table, the new book I coauthored with Farina Wong Kingsley (and produced by Marin Magazine), was inspired by that connection and by the many people who make it a daily reality here in Marin County. The following profiles of Marin’s organic farmers and ranchers were adapted from the book.
Allstar Organics began in 1994 when Marty Jacobsen and Janet Brown planted what they called a “vineyard” of heirloom tomatoes in a sunny one-acre field next to their home in Lagunitas on the edge of Marin’s redwood forest.
Today, that terraced field is filled with organic lavender, rosemary, spearmint, Thai basil, cilantro and other herbs that Janet dries and sells alone or mixed with salt. Sharing the field are 500 antique rosebushes, whose colorful petals Janet distills to make a delicately flavored rose sugar and the refreshing distilled floral waters known as hydrosols.
A few years ago, Marty began working a 10-acre piece of land in Nicasio. There, he continues to grow tomatoes—20 varieties of heirlooms, cherries and others—and has had room to expand to other organic produce, including winter squash, watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatillos, zucchini, eggplant and five kinds of beans. Marty is known among Bay Area chefs as an adventurous farmer willing to take a risk on an unproven crop. He grows specialty varieties for specific restaurants, such as shishito peppers for Slanted Door in San Francisco and rare types of chard such as erbette.
Ever since they started, Janet and Marty have farmed organically. “We really believe in organic,” says Marty. “We never thought of doing it any other way. We farm because it is organic. It just seems like a very meaningful thing to do.”
Janet has been a gardener all her life. “When Marty and I came to the point where we wanted to have our own business,” she says, “it had to be a farm.”
And the name, Allstar Organics—how did that come about? “Well, we were trying to come up with a name, and we were stuck,” Janet recounts. “Then one day when we were talking about it, our son, Bo, came walking up the drive wearing his red-white-and-blue All-Star baseball uniform. And there it was!”
Drakes Bay Family Farms
Kevin Lunny’s grandfather had no intention of getting into ranching when he helped his brother-in-law get a loan for a dairy farm on the Point Reyes Peninsula. But when the in-law turned out to be a ne’er-do-well, Joe Lunny, a San Francisco steamship executive, headed to Marin to see what he had inadvertently bought. He never returned to the city. Neither did his son, Joe Lunny Jr. And neither did his grandson Kevin.
Today, Drakes Bay Family Farms raises organic cattle on its 1,400 acres and, as the Historic G Ranch, is one of 15 historic ranches and dairies operating within the Point Reyes National Seashore, remnants of the huge dairy farms that were established as far back as the 1850s.
Drakes Bay Family Farms produces the only certified organic beef in Marin County. The 200 head of Hereford-Angus cows are raised in organic pastures bordering Drakes Estero, are fed organic feed before going to market, and are free of any growth hormones or other medicine used to ward off disease. The herd is closed. “We have not purchased a cow in 30 years,” says Lunny. “Every animal is born and raised on this ranch.”
The Lunny family’s move from conventional to organic ranching began out of necessity. Like the owners of many small farms and ranches, the Lunnys were struggling. “The economics were getting tougher and tougher,” says Lunny.There wasn’t enough income for our parents, much less my family.” (He and his wife have triplets.) “It was a beautiful life, but it wasn’t a living.”
The family decided it needed to think differently. Lunny took over an adjacent oyster business (the much-debated Drakes Bay Oyster Farm), planted several acres of artichokes (which thrive in the cool, moist climate), and converted part of his beef herd to organic, seeing an opportunity to sell quality, not quantity. “Surprisingly, what started out as an economic driver turned out to be my deepest passion,” Lunny says. “What organic ranching does for the land, for biodiversity and for the local market is amazing. It’s awesome for a farmer to know who’s enjoying our food. That’s a blessing to us, because those people are actually paying more money for healthy food, and that directly supports us.”
Fresh Run Farm
If a young San Rafael man hadn’t ridden his Indian motorcycle out to Bolinas one day in 1916 to fish for trout in Pine Gulch Creek, this tiny seaside town, home to artists, writers and iconoclasts, might never have become the birthplace of Marin’s organic farming movement.
But Jordan Martinelli returned to Pine Gulch Creek again and again, drawn to the freshwater that flows year-round against a rift in the notorious San Andreas Fault, and began buying land. Eventually, he owned 500 acres in the aptly named Paradise Valley, where he set up a dairy operation.
That land, blessed with cake-like loam topsoil that runs 12 feet deep or more, still produces food, but today it’s a cornucopia of organic produce brought from the ground by the hands of Peter Martinelli, the young trout fisherman’s grandson.
Fresh Run Farm sits on 240 acres that stretch from shaded bottomland to contoured slopes to hillsides wooded with old groves of live oak. The farm ends on a ridgetop that abuts the Point Reyes National Seashore and provides a view (on a fog-free day) clear across Marin County to the spires of downtown San Francisco.
Peter draws water from Pine Gulch Creek—which is still a steelhead trout run—to grow just about every type of row-crop vegetable, ranging from spring greens like lettuce and arugula to summer potatoes to fall squash and winter artichokes. “The only things I can’t grow,” he says, “are peppers and tomatoes. Not enough heat.”
Fresh Run Farm is located upstream from two of Marin’s oldest organic farms, Paradise Valley Produce and Star Route Farms, both of which rely on water from Pine Gulch Creek.
On the Martinelli property, organic farming is still a family affair. Peter’s sister-in-law, Susan Martinelli, has a house on the land and, under the label Creekside Garden, produces a variety of jams and jellies, dried fruit and vegetables.
Little Organic Farm
David Little went organic even before he became a farmer. “When I was 10, my parents let me have a pumpkin patch at the side of the house,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to realize that fish emulsion is better than some miracle product” when it comes to making things grow.
Today, David is a popular figure at farmers’ markets in Marin and San Francisco. It’s hard to miss him. He’s tall, gregarious, white-haired and surrounded by boxes of organic potatoes grown on his farm near Tomales.
David produces so many varieties of potato that his crop list reads like a United Nations seating chart: Rose Finn Apple, Russian Banana, French, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Yellow Finn and Viking. And there’s more: Ozette, Carola, Kennebec, Russet Norkotah, Mountain Rose, Charlotte, Lakatte, Red Thum, White Rose and Katahdin.
David dry-farms his potatoes—as well as several varieties of cherry and heirloom tomatoes—in the rich sandy loam that is typical of northern Marin soil. Dry farming means that the crop is not irrigated during the season, but is instead nurtured by the moisture held in the soil (and the summer fog). The result is a concentration of flavor, producing potatoes known for their taste and texture, and tomatoes so sweet they could be sold as candy. All in all, David has 26 acres under cultivation in several fields, including the potatoes, tomatoes and a few other types of organic produce that he irrigates (squash, lettuce, onions, melons and strawberries).
When he jumped into farming full time more than a dozen years ago, David knew organic was the way to go. “My marketing strategy was quality,” he says. “Organic just made sense. Besides, I don’t know how to do it any other way.”
Winters in Marin are too wet for growing potatoes, but David still serves local shoppers and chefs from the stock of exotic spuds he stores in dozens of 50-pound burlap bags kept in his well-weathered barn.
Marin Roots Farm
Perched on a 10-acre upland rise that straddles the Marin-Sonoma county line, Marin Roots Farm is located in an agricultural neighborhood that represents the entire cross section of Marin’s farm community.
Down below is the large Volpi Dairy, whose milking barn hums long into the night; next to it is the smaller Andante Dairy, producer of artisan goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses; to the west are the fields of County Line Harvest and La Tercera farms (the latter under the till of Annabelle Lenderink, sales manager for organic pioneer Star Route Farms); and across the highway to the south are the picturesque organic olive orchards of the McEvoy Ranch.
But when owner Jesse Kuhn first saw the land for his farm—which he found by putting a “farmland wanted” ad in the local newspaper—he wasn’t thinking of the quality of his neighbors. He wanted good soil and enough water to grow all year. “I could tell the soil was good here,” he says, “because the grass and the weeds were five feet tall.”
Today, six years later, that overgrown field is brimming with rows of leafy greens, beets, fava beans, various types of tomatoes and multicolored carrots, broccoli rabe, chicory, chard and berries.
Kuhn, at 33, has come a long way in a short time. He founded Marin Roots Farm after studying sustainable agriculture in college, working first as a landscaper and then putting in apprentice time at other farms. The first season on the land was a rough one: maxed-out credit cards, repairs on the aging barn, fields of discarded debris (“I was always cutting buried barbed wire off the tiller”).
But persistence paid off and helped fulfill a longing he’d had since childhood for his own farm. “My grandmother had a green thumb,” he says. “I have vivid memories of her farm in Nebraska, of visiting the farm and eating alfalfa fresh from the field. They really stuck in my mind.”
Paradise Valley Produce
As the social turmoil of the sixties gave way to the New Age revolution of the seventies, many young people in search of community and a simpler rural life went “back to the land.” Dennis Dierks, then a commercial artist, was one of them.
Eventually, the hard work and economic realities of farming drove most of the back-to-the-landers back to the city. Not Dennis. He stayed, outlasting the other members of a collective who in 1972 had bought 50 acres in Paradise Valley, a green wedge of land tucked between the San Andreas Fault and Pine Gulch Creek on the Bolinas peninsula, and became one of Marin’s pioneering organic farmers.
Today Dennis and his wife, Sandy, are still at it. They’ve raised five children on this rich bottomland, living in a beautiful home they built under the tall alders that drape the creek and working the deep soil of Paradise Valley to produce 14 varieties of organic lettuce; spinach, kale, and chard; several varieties of squash and potatoes and an aromatic assortment of leeks and onions.
Dennis has always placed stewardship of the land foremost. “I didn’t want to use chemicals,” he says. “We were starting a family, and we wanted good, clean food.”
Over the years he has “learned how to work with natural systems rather than against them” and has become a local expert in using natural means, such as capturing microbes from the air, to feed his soil. “We get our whole nutrient system within five miles of the farm,” he says. “A farm can’t be sustainable if you’re trucking in stuff from all over. Our major focus is trying to create our own nutrient system.”
Paradise Valley benefits from Pine Gulch Creek’s year-round flow, a rarity in most parts of Marin. And Dennis’s efforts to protect the annual steelhead trout runs in the creek earned his farm California’s first certification as “salmon safe.”
After 30 years of growing organic food, Dennis says he’s “still improving.” He sells most of his crop through local farmers’ markets. “That’s the best you can get,” he says, “dealing directly with the people who are going to eat your food.”
Star Route Farms
Warren Weber has been called, at various points in his farming life, “the father of organic farming in California,” one of the “Grand Old Men of Food,” an “organic farming icon” and, most often, an “organic pioneer.”
It’s true that, as founder of the Star Route Farms, the oldest continually certified organic farm in California, he’s deserving of all those labels. But pluck them away and beyond the icon is a man who still likes to get his hands dirty doing what he loves: growing clean, healthy, tasty food in a way that connects the earth to the farmer and the farmer to the community.
That has been Warren’s mission since 1974, when as a young former college professor he bought a plot of land alongside the Bolinas Lagoon, set up house in a train caboose and started farming with a horse-drawn plow. Organic from the first seed he planted, Warren initially sold to a scattering of local markets and health food stores, outposts of the fresh food revolution that was just beginning. The woman behind that revolution, Chez Panisse creator Alice Waters, gave Star Route a big boost in the mid-seventies when she asked Warren to grow her signature mesclun salad mix for her.
Over the years, he acquired more land, and today Star Route has 100 acres in Bolinas, 40 of them used for growing, and another plot of land in the Coachella Valley, where the warm winter permits growing food year-round. From these fields, Star Route produces an array of lettuces and a host of other leafy greens, seasonal vegetables of all types and, in the greenhouse, edible flowers.
Well known among local chefs and close readers of menus, Star Route had its moment in the international spotlight during a 2005 visit to West Marin organic farms by Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. After a chatty tour of the farmers’ market in Point Reyes Station, where all the food is grown within 20 miles of the town, the royal couple dined with Warren and a group of other local farmers at Star Route.
Straus Family Creamery
Straus Family Creamery is a model of a modern organic dairy. For its first half-century, starting in 1941, when Bill and Ellen Straus began dairy farming in Marshall on the shores of Tomales Bay, the Straus farm was a conventional small dairy, selling its milk through cooperatives to larger producers.
By the 1990s, with milk prices falling and the industry shrinking, the family faced difficult financial choices. The future of their farm was at stake. Ellen Straus was already an environmental force in Marin County—she was a founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the farmland preservation group formed in the 1970s to block urban development of West Marin—so when son Albert suggested the dairy become organic and make its own products, the family readily made the leap.
In 1994, the 660-acre farm became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi River. Today, its 300 Jersey-Holstein cows produce enough milk (about eight gallons each per day) for Straus to churn out not just its own brand of milk but also organic yogurt, ice cream and butter, all sold mostly to retail stores, but also to discriminating local restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Straus milk is also the basis for the nationally famous artisan cheeses made by Cowgirl Creamery of Point Reyes Station.
This type of marketing, which connects the farm directly to the end product, has helped Straus survive and keep alive Marin County’s tradition of family farms. Straus continues to innovate, both in finding new ways to use its milk—like Barista Milk, made especially for espresso machines—and in developing sustainable farming practices.
Straus powers its dairy and the family home by turning manure from its cows into methane, saving as much as $6,000 a month in utility costs and preventing the methane from escaping into the atmosphere, where it would be damaging to the ozone layer. Two years ago, Straus became the first certified organic manufacturer in the nation to verify that all its products are uncontaminated by genetically modified organisms.