THE FOUNDING OF THE MARIN AGRICULTURAL LAND TRUST
“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gift s of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on ...”
—JOY HARJO, PERHAPS THE WORLD ENDS HERE
“In the 1970s, dairy farmer Ellen Straus and biologist Phyllis Faber sat at farm kitchen tables around the county and talked about the adversity being faced by dairy families.”
—HISTORIAN DEWEY LIVINGSTON, ’TILL THE COWS COME HOME (EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY, SPRING 2013)
Women’s work at kitchen tables has always been more than making meals. As a child, sitting at or under many a kitchen table, I observed the power in the way that women listened, formed relationships, built community and solved problems. It was at one such kitchen table, the one belonging to Ellen and Bill Straus at their Straus Home Ranch in Marshall, that the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) was born. The very organization that has since its founding in 1980 preserved 51,581 acres of farmland in Marin Country—in perpetuity. And it’s still going strong, still recognizing and utilizing the power of the kitchen table.
Ellen Straus passed away in 2002, but her kitchen table collaborator and co-founder of MALT, Phyllis Faber, sat down with me to talk about how it all began.
NOT GOING TO FLEE AGAIN
Phyllis, a former wetlands biologist and forever environmental activist, recounts, “I was taking Drake and Redwood high school students out to explore West Marin in the early ’70s. Jerry Friedman, a friend and a county planner who had founded the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC) in 1971, told me that I needed to meet Ellen (an active EAC member), and take the kids to see her dairy farm. Right away, Ellen opened her farm to us. She and I liked each other from the start. She was a fantastic baker and would serve cakes and tarts and tell stories about the farm. She won everyone’s heart. These kids were just blown away by their ventures into West Marin, a world so different from East Marin. Later, when Ellen and I started MALT, one of those kids left us his inheritance from his grandmother.”
Phyllis emphasized that it took many incremental steps before MALT came into being. First, there was the movement to re-zone the agricultural areas to restrict residential construction to just one residential dwelling per 60 acres (A60 zoning).
“Ellen and Bill were the only ranchers who had supported the creation of the national seashore [in Point Reyes], hoping to keep development at bay, and the only ranchers that spoke in favor of the zoning plan that limited construction to one house per 60 acres in current agricultural areas. They were really ostracized for this, because the ranchers saw selling to the developers as inevitable. They had seen this kind of development pushing ranchers and agriculture out all over the Bay Area. There would be money for retirement and to take care of their families. The new zoning meant they would now sell for far less money.”
“It really drove Ellen crazy seeing all the ‘for sale’ signs between Point Reyes and their dairy in Marshall,” Phyllis said. It also drove her into action… The 2012 documentary Rebels With a Cause, about the battle to preserve the land in West Marin from major development, includes a clip of Ellen saying in her beautiful Dutch accent, “When Hitler came to power we had to flee. I wasn’t going to flee again ... I especially felt very threatened because I would have to move again because of development and urbanization. So I made up my mind that I was not going to be thrown out again—not out of a life I loved and an area I loved.”
Gary Giacomini, a member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors from 1972 to 1996 and widely acknowledged as one of the key architects of the preservation of agriculture in West Marin, was quoted before his death in 2016 as saying “Ellen and Bill Straus had unbelievable courage to take those positions in those days.” Giacomini, himself part of a storied West Marin ranching family, had run for supervisor in 1972 on the platform of passing zoning to save agricultural lands and open space in West Marin.
According to Gary, “All the ranchers, including my blood relatives, hated me and 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.”
Ellen’s daughter, Vivian Straus, recalls, “There would be community meetings and everyone would be screaming at each other because there were so many different sides, and Mom would sit in the back very quietly and at the end stand up and calmly suggest a solution that took everybody into account ... she saw the big picture … I also want to say that as an activist who was dealing with serious issues, there was always a lightness and joyfulness to her. Every person’s dream mattered to her and she would listen and support you with her boundless enthusiasm.”
So, then, how to support the ranchers’ dreams of selling their land to raise monies needed to care for their families, to eventually retire or, as is increasingly the case, to expand their holdings or to take advantage of business opportunities like converting to certified organic or adding value-added products to their offerings, while still preserving the land for agriculture?
“These were hard times for farmers, and their kids were going off to other careers. Milk prices were bad and they were just getting over drought years where the county had to pitch in to support them. We needed to find solutions so that farmers and their children could stay on the farm,” acknowledged Phyllis. So she and Ellen began to meet with the ranchers, listening to their concerns and ideas.
One of those conversations, with a rancher named Boyd Stewart in Olema, was an epiphany. “Boyd had sold his land to the government for the Point Reyes National Seashore and they guaranteed that his family could continue to ranch the land going forward. He said to us, ‘My family will be ranching into the future because this land is now secure.’ That struck a chord with us. It was clear that what was needed for the ranchers who weren’t part of the park system was that kind of certainty.”
Shortly thereafter, Ellen and Phyllis hit upon the idea to explore the creation of a land trust for agricultural land. Ellen’s son Albert Straus, the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery, said, “I remember when Phyllis and my mother came up with the idea of MALT
They came back from a walk in the pastures and talked about the idea that A60 zoning was only as good as the votes on the Board of Supervisors. The ranchers needed a more permanent solution, and they had decided to explore the possibility of a land trust.”
Phyllis said of those first days, “We went to meet with the Trust for Public Land, who said they would help us. They arranged a meeting with Gary Giacomini of the Board of Supervisors, Jerry Friedman, who was head of the county planning commission, and Ralph Grossi, who was head of the newly formed Land Use Committee of the Farm Bureau. The Trust for Public Land put on a presentation for the local officials, after which the officials responded, ‘We will think about all of this and get back to you.’ So they went away and I kept calling Ellen and saying ‘why is this is taking so long?’”
FROM CRAZY IDEA TO MODEL FOR THE COUNTRY
In the meantime, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) was asking each county for what it called a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) to preserve land specifically along the coastline from private development. From the CCC dictates, it was clear that A60 zoning would not be good enough to meet their requirements. Zoning restrictions would have to increase to A120, or more. The notion of even greater zoning restrictions, reducing even further their opportunities to sell off portions of their land, was anathema to local landowners, and the politicians who represented them.
Phyllis emphasized that this created a unique moment in time for the county. She said she believes that without that “gun to the head of the county,” they would have never picked up a crazy idea like buying agricultural development rights.
“Ralph Grossi, who was president of the Farm Bureau and a new-generation thinker, championed our concept to the ranchers and the county. That’s how MALT was formed—not on the virtuousness of the concept, but as a political solution. Ellen and I had listened to our ranching community, we built unlikely alliances between environmentalists and ranchers (who were often one and the same, but just needed to be shown the connection) and we had what we felt was a good solution. We were happy to move forward.”
In July 1980, MALT was founded as the first land trust for agricultural land in the country. A nongovernmental nonprofit organization, MALT essentially purchases the development rights to land, so landowners receive money now in exchange for the placing of easements (aka deed restrictions) on their land, preserving it for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. Landowners also retain ownership of their land, continuing their legacy of agricultural pursuits—and preserving the bucolic beauty of the area for all of us. Not to mention the food security that comes through the local production of food.
Ralph Grossi became the first board chair of MALT. He went on to become the president of the American Farmland Trust, which was inspired by MALT, as were many other agricultural land trusts now spread across America. I asked Phyllis why neither she nor Ellen wanted to be the first president of the board and she said, “We wanted MALT to be taken seriously and to succeed. At that time in history it was important for MALT to have a highly qualified man leading the organization. Ralph was excellent and his vision and forward way of thinking resonated with us. Ralph did a great deal to make MALT happen and thrive. Eventually, times did change regarding the need for a male leading MALT, and I was the fourth board president down the road, when we felt that MALT was well established enough.”
NOT JUST BAIL OUT OR RETIREMENT FUNDS
I asked Phyllis about the biggest challenges they faced after they had finally gotten MALT established, and she said, “At first, the ranching community viewed it as ‘Well, if you’re failing, use MALT.’ Early on we did an easement with somebody who was struggling, and our easement helped them out with their feed bill.” That prejudiced other ranchers against working with MALT. “This wasn’t our vision,” said Phyllis.
Phyllis went on to say “Rancher Willie Lafranchi will always be a saint to me. He was the first rancher (and a beloved citizen of Nicasio) who took the money that he got from placing a MALT easement on his farm and used it to buy another farm. So he doubled his land holding using money from MALT, and that opened the eyes of the ranching community. From then on, MALT was in business! Ranchers have used it to increase their land holdings or to deal with inheritance issues, so that the money could be used to pay siblings or the next generation who wants to sell their share to the sibling that wants to ranch. Albert Straus used money from a MALT easement to start the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi. The money has been used in a number of different ways, not to just pay off debts. There are so many ways to have the certainty that a farmer or rancher needs.”
CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF THE KITCHEN TABLE
I asked Phyllis if she and Ellen ever spoke about feminism or women’s issue in agriculture as they created a model for the nation using their powers of kitchen table talks and keen observation. Phyllis laughed and said, “We didn’t really talk about it. We knew what our experience and strength was, and we both had had interesting lives. I don’t think that it was an issue for us, being women, because we had done what we wanted to do and had done it just as we wanted to.”
Today, much of MALT’s work is still being done around kitchen tables. Case in point is Stephanie Tavares-Buhler, MALT’s easement project manager. Stephanie is the first and primary point of contact for anyone interested in selling or donating an easement on their land. Like Ellen and Phyllis before her, much of Stephanie’s work is done at kitchen tables, meeting with landowners and their families.
In late 2013, Stephanie had just taken the California bar exam when she saw an ad that MALT had posted, looking for a lawyer who could “drive a stick in all kinds of weather and conditions.” She joined the team in 2014. I asked her if she felt that the culture of MALT was shaped by having been founded by women and she responded, “Phyllis and Ellen gave MALT excellent bones, and they were incredibly forward thinking in how they designed the board. Rather than a focus on physical diversity like gender, it was set up to have a diversity of perspectives. They set it up from the beginning to be a place of collaboration and listening, along with vigorous debate and discussion about how to carry out this mission. We have this diversity of backgrounds of people who are interested in either ranching issues, environmental issues or nonprofit governance issues. It’s in our bylaws that 50% of the board be from the agricultural world and 50% from other backgrounds. We have a culture of collaboration and relationship building among the board and the staff and the community. I think when Phyllis and Ellen first started, those were things that were more attributed to women. I think today, for my generation, that’s really changed. In our current iteration of MALT, it’s an even playing field for everyone and anyone we hire comes with an appreciation of that type of culture.”
ALWAYS MORE TO BE DONE
MALT’s mission to permanently protect Marin’s historically agricultural land for agricultural use in perpetuity does not allow it to simply buy an easement and walk away. Although the current A60 zoning quells the threat of suburban sprawl, the ability of uber-wealthy buyers to purchase large swaths of agricultural land that they might just hold as private, nonproducing estates is a very real threat. MALT’s Mandatory Agricultural Use (MAU) program was developed to address this issue. MAU provisions have been a part of all new easements since 2011, and in 2014 MALT started offering compensation to previously “MALT-ed” landowners who would amend their older easement to include a MAU provision.
Partnerships and alliances with organizations like The Marin Resource Conservation District and the National Resources Conservation Service continue to increase and expand, as well. MALT’s Executive Director Jamison Watts told me, “Our vision is a healthy, sustainable agricultural community, not just protecting the land, but doing it in a way that is ecologically and economically sustainable.” To this end, MALT has created a Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP) to help secure funding through grants and partnerships for their MALT-ed property partners. A partnership with the Marin Carbon Project has led to the development of carbon farming initiatives on a number of MALT properties, and by this coming fall it is expected that 10 MALT properties will have developed some form of carbon plan.
Julie Evans Rossotti is a fourth generation West Marin rancher, and just finishing her nine years of service as a MALT board member. She and her husband, Tony Rossotti, own Rossotti Ranch specializing in pasture-raised veal and grass-fed goat. On a walk with her cattle on a new MALT easement property in Nicasio, she said, “You know, we owe so much to Phyllis and Ellen. They took an idea that they had in a conversation and didn’t walk away, they kept the conversation going and pursued their vision. When we come to the table, we are a multi-generational organization. We’ve now had second-generation MALT board members whose parents served, like Sam Dolcini, Lynn Giacomini Stray, Loren Poncia and Lisa Poncia, and then new first-generation folks like Marcia Barinaga and Tamara Hicks. I feel like MALT is still structured in the same fashion—it’s a conversation with many viewpoints that has never ended.”
Ellen Straus’ son, Michael Straus, recalled, “Our house was always a home where people were constantly flowing through—environmentalists and ranchers alike—and my mom would somehow bring them all together with homemade pie. We were always surrounded by this idea of conservation, engagement, optimism and involvement in the community.”
I think Ellen would be very proud to see that the conversation she and Phyllis began nearly 40 years ago, at a kitchen table, is still going on—and accomplishing so very much.