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Welcome to westmarincitizen.com :: Farm Report
 

The People’s Paper:  By the Community, of the Community, for the Community

 

Serving the Ranching community and the towns of Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Dogtown, Olema, Pt Reyes Station, Inverness, Inverness Park, Marshall, Tomales, Dillon Beach, Nicasio, Lagunitas, Forest Knolls, San Geronimo & Woodacre.

 
 
 

 

West Marin Food & Farm Tours

 

Wind in the Westlands: Ms. Hill’s Wild Ride

by Mary Olson

 

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” - T. S. Elliott

 

I thought I knew a little bit about the local food scene in West Marin. I do, but “a little bit” are the operative words here. A person who really knows the food scene is Elizabeth Hill of West Marin Food & Farm Tours. She knows her stuff - her foodstuffs and her history stuff. And other stuff, too.

 

I was lucky to be invited to tag along on one of her tours on a recent Sunday morning. We all met at Tomales Bay Foods at a decidedly civilized hour. A group had cancelled at the very last minute so there were only three of us - Aline Colin, a young doctor from Mexico City and her companion, Michael Falter, who works in a San Francisco bank that caters to agricultural clients.

 

First up, we sat down at the long slab of a table on the other side of the Cowgirl Cheese Factory wall. We had a little breakfast of scones and ham and cheese croissants, straight from the oven at the Bovine Bakery. Warm and gooey and soul-satisfying. I wished I hadn’t eaten breakfast beforehand, and decided that the Food and Farm Tours should come with a warning on the website for those wishing to sign up: Attention: Please starve yourself for two days before the tour!

 

Next, Elizabeth disappeared and returned with a board covered in little tabs of Cowgirl cheeses arranged on little pieces of paper. She talked at length about each cheese. Each has its own story, and Elizabeth is a fine storyteller. Not only does she know the Latin names for all the various bacteria that give cheeses their unique flavors but she can also pronounce them.

 

Thoroughly stuffed, it was now time for a short walk to Brickmaiden Bakery. The bakery is not open to the public, and in fact most people probably have no idea where it is. It’s hidden in plain sight right behind a fence bordering The Commons on Fourth Street in Point Reyes Station.

It was a thrill for me to walk into this bakery. A world famous oven builder, the late Alan Scott, who was a local, built the oven. Not long ago I read a book about him and his ovens and the bread that is baked in them. An oven’s design has everything to do with the taste of the bread that emerges from it. Even at midmorning, long after all the bread had been baked and the bakers had gone home, the room was still warm from the oven’s radiant heat.

 

The rest of the bakery has a beautiful, monastic simplicity.  There’s a long wooden counter stacked with bread-rising bowls, and some rolling metal bakery carts. In the corner is a plain old covered bucket that contains the breads’ starter. The starter is a living, breathing, yeasty creature that is nurtured and nourished daily, and daily it ‘starts’ the bread in the fermentation process.

 

That’s it: All that beautiful bread emerges from this humble space.

 

This is a hallowed spot for another reason, too. Chad Robertson, now the owner and baker of Tartine bakery in the San Francisco Mission District, got his start here as well. Many have declared Tartine to be the best bread bakery in America.

 

We popped over to Bovine next for some spiced tea. The warm cardamom-scented tea was just the thing on this chilly morning.  Then it was into the van for a short ride to Marin Sun Farms to taste their goat and lamb burgers, fried Brussels sprouts, onion rings and sweet potato fries for lunch. Anyone who is not a fan of the brassica family will be won over by the sweet nuttiness of the baby cabbages. The burgers melt in your mouth and the meat is lightly packed. They are not of the same ilk as those dense behemoths that can only be eaten by snakes with the ability to unhinge their jaws.

 

By now we were all feeling comfortable with each other and the conversation was getting interesting. Michael, from an Ohio ranching family, felt that ranchers who were not certified “organic” but who raised their animals humanely were being hurt by the reputation of “non-organic.” His thought-provoking stories left me wishing I could spend hours with him and a nifty tape recorder. His voice needs to be heard. But the conversation had to adjourn to the van, since we had places to go.

 

Elizabeth whisked us over to Aaron Wilder’s honor system farm stand, Table Top Farm, on the Point Reyes Mesa. We walked across his growing plot and pulled baby carrots out of the earth. I didn’t bother to wash mine, enjoying its sweet, earthy goodness right there.

 

Then it was time for some wine, so we moved on to Point Reyes Vineyards. Wine tasting there usually has a modest $5 fee, but it is free as part of the farm tour - as are all the tastings. And there are so many wines to taste. I had to cut myself off after the whites for fear of falling asleep, but the champagne was so exquisitely lovely I couldn’t resist a purchase.

 

The tasting room has a low-key, cozy, homey feel to it, and guests were welcome to spread the new Point Reyes Blue Cheese “Bay Blue” on a variety of tasty crackers.

 

When we arrived we were the first tasters of the day, but soon the place filled up, with one car after another pulling up the long driveway. Each group easily joined the conversation, and soon it felt as though we’d stepped into a neighborhood cocktail party.

 

The relaxed, easy pace of the tour had me thinking I’d be home later in the afternoon than I’d anticipated. But that kind of relaxed attitude is essential to the carefree, I’m-on-vacation-feeling you would want if you were showing around your own family and friends. Tours usually last about five hours and include between five and seven guests. It’s very cozy and intimate, not to mention completely comfortable in the luxurious van.

 

Eventually we popped in the van again and were off to Hog Island Oyster Company.

 

Now, I’ve been to Hog Island to buy oysters and clams and then rushed home, but I’ve never sat down and enjoyed oysters at their new oyster bar. The bar itself is made out of an old fishing boat, cleverly upended. You order at the bar, selecting from a blackboard list.

 

“Mary, your BBQ’s are ready!” they called when my order was ready.

 

The experience at Hog Island is a gem, a hidden pearl - worth more than the price of admission. Sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the bay, with the sound of waves lapping, the sun sinking in the horizon, and Elizabeth offering a clever history lesson on oyster farming in Tomales Bay, is possibly one of the sweetest things I’ve happened upon in recent memory.

 

I haven’t said enough about Elizabeth Hill. My college-age children tell me it’s not “PC” to talk about someone’s physical attributes, but the heck with them: Elizabeth is beautiful. What’s more she’s intelligent, well-spoken, has a great sense of humor, and is a veritable encyclopedia of facts about West Marin’s history. Just try to stump her.

 

Elizabeth is a Certified Natural Chef, a Stanford grad with an MA in education, a UC Master Gardener, and is the third generation of her family to live in Inverness. Like I said before, she knows her stuff.

 

People at the other end of our picnic table had brought a tablecloth, bread, wine, salads and desserts. They laid out their goodies and invited us to join them - a wonderful invitation that we four could not accept due to our overstuffedness, with plates of oysters both raw and barbequed still comin’ at us.

 

We were all wiped out. Too much food, too much sunshine, too many things to think about. I was happy to climb into my cushy van seat and let Elizabeth drive us back to Tomales Bay Foods.  There were hugs all around, an exchange of email addresses, pictures taken by the van - and then it was all over.

 

I now know a little bit more about the food scene in West Marin than I did when I stepped into Elizabeth Hill’s world. But “a little bit” are still the operative words here. There is so much more to know.

 

I went home and took a nap. It was a good day. A very good day. Thanks, Elizabeth!

 

If you have friends and rellies coming for a visit, things will go better if everyone spends some time apart. I say, make a reservation for them on the Food & Farm Tour. They will return with more information about our local foodshed and area history that you ever could have provided. And that night, you surely won’t need to cook them dinner.

 

Mary McAndrew Olsen lives in Inverness, on the border of Tomales Bay State Park, with her husband Jim, a naked.com winemaker, and her sweet dog, Molly. Her children are grown and do not come home often enough. She likes to cook for her friends. In her spare time she likes to write for the West Marin Citizen and stir up trouble.

 

***

 

Forage   by Steve Quirt

 

There was a time that you needed to grow or locally source most of the feed that your livestock consumed. The option of calling up Pozzi Hay or Toby’s Feed for a truckload of sweet, Nevada alfalfa hay didn’t exist. You could hold more animals on less acreage with imported feed, only if the numbers came up black.

 

The records don’t go back that far, but early farmers and ranchers in Northwest Marin, especially in the 1880’s to the turn of the Century, spent half the year growing winter oats for the horses that plowed the land for potatoes to be planted in the summer. This was a dry land farming rotation that worked well - except that it filled in Walker Creek and Tomales Bay with topsoil.

 

Livestock forage farming has been here awhile. Gary Thornton, who is one of the Marshall family that started farming and ranching here in 1856, told me that as a kid in the 1950’s and 60’s, he spent more time on the tractor than he did in school. The family grew three hundred acres of barley and oats each season to feed the dairy cows and assorted livestock. They were forage farmers as well as dairy operators, which was standard practice until cheap fuel, centralized production and international trade became easier and less expensive than growing feed on farm.

 

Did I say “international?” Yup. It’s about the significant amount of offshore corn that goes into dairy and livestock feeds. Shannon Andrews, a Portland feed ingredient trader for San Francisco-based agricultural commodities distributor Wilbur-Ellis Co., said she can’t meet demand.

 

“I have customers that are looking for six rail cars a month of corn, and I can’t get that quantity coming from anywhere in the U.S.,” she said, adding that the harder-to-find, high-protein feed is coming from China and other countries because “it’s where you can get it.” Taken from SeattlePI.com

 

 - State’s Organic Cows Starved For American-grown Meal - By Shannon Dininny - ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

 

Today, importing feed to ranching operations is the norm, especially when the grass dries up. In order to keep in business, ranchers need to have an optimized herd size - optimized to what their pastures can produce, what the market pricing demands and to how much the price of imported feed affects the operation. It’s just the way it works right now.

 

The advent of non feed-lot cattle production like local grass-fed has been both a boon and a bother to producers who choose that market. Boon because it’s popular and profitable right now, bother because it takes a lot of local grass to produce an 800 lb calf. Cattle are routinely moved around as the grass dries up, even as far as the cool pastures of Oregon, in order to get the weights and conditions required for the widely variable grass-fed markets and standards. Often the cows are finished on increasingly expensive imported alfalfa.

 

All of which makes the experiments going on with local forage production increasingly relevant. Think about it - we have a long winter spring growing season and cool summers in coastal Marin, that beg for dry-farmed grassland forage production. Just like the old days, but with some a modern perspective on resource management and carbon concerns. No more filling up Bays and Estuaries with topsoil.

 

Gary and Steve Mahrt planted two forage crops on about 25 acres out on Fallon Road. By June they cut and bagged the field hay, disked in the stubble, and replanted sorghum and oats. Northwest Marin boasts deep topsoil with good water retention and the ability to draw up moisture from deep aquifers, and in can support two cuts of grass.

 

The field will lie fallow for a month or two, then return to grazing, replenishing fertility. David Evans, of Marin Sun Farms, thinks this can be a positive pasture management tool, “I think that keeping livestock on the field for three years is about right to restore fertility to this kind of rotation.” This kind of rotation management can be practiced with little or no inputs, and without irrigation.

 

 

 

 

 

  

BLACK MOUNTAIN RANCH

GRASS FED BEEF

Order your whole, half or split quarter by calling 415.663.1910

Organically raised. Limited supply. 

 

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