Marin Agricultural Land Trust: Preserving Marin County Farmland | Civil Eats

Marin Agricultural Land Trust: Preserving Marin County Farmland

If we can make the right choices about where our food comes from, we can change the world. Protecting farmland is the first vital step.

—Alice Waters

When Ellen Straus, a dairywoman from Marshall, California, gazed out from her family’s farm in the early 1970s, she saw practically the same sight as those who raised livestock there 150 years before would had seen. And it was just about the same view a coastal traveler on this section of Highway One, located about 50 miles north of San Francisco, would see today: rolling hills, ranches, and the sparkling estuarine waters of Tomales Bay.

But Ellen knew that all of this was threatened. The County of Marin had devised a plan for the westernmost part of the county that envisioned a city of 150,000 people on the shores of Tomales Bay. Highways, shopping centers, golf courses, and car dealerships would have replaced the bucolic scene and ended a way of life for her and other farming families who had made a living from the land since the time of the Gold Rush. (In those days, Point Reyes butter was known as “the other gold.”)

Thanks to the efforts of those who were concerned about the loss of this unique landscape, thanks to newly elected supervisors who opposed development of this type, and thanks to the creation of strict zoning laws, the plan was scrapped. But zoning laws are easily changed. On any Tuesday, three of the five Marin County supervisors could vote to modify the restrictions that keep the land protected. (Fortunately, today’s supervisors are very supportive of agriculture. In the 2007 Marin Countywide Plan, they reaffirm their commitment to it.)

So no one who knew Ellen Straus was surprised when she and her friend Phyllis Faber, a botanist from Mill Valley, came up with the idea of a land trust that would both permanently protect the land from development and provide some sense of certainty for the farmers and ranchers that there would be a future for agriculture in Marin County. At the time, no one had ever used the concept of a land trust to protect farmland.

Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the nonprofit organization they started in 1980, was the first land trust in the nation to focus on agriculture.

So far, it’s protected almost 41,000 acres of farmland on 63 family farms and ranches. MALT isn’t resting on its laurels, though. One million acres of American farmland were paved over last year and, in Marin, 60,000 acres are still at risk, mainly from estate buyers.

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Happily, some of the Bay Area’s most tastiest dairy products and organic crops are produced on farmland already protected by MALT conservation easements, which total more than 40,000 acres on 63 family farms and ranches. If you’ve tasted Straus Family Creamery milk, Cowgirl Creamery Cheese, Point Reyes Farmstead Blue Cheese, or Sartori Farm strawberries, or sipped wines from Stubbs Vineyard, you’ve tasted food produced on land protected by MALT agricultural conservation easements in voluntary agreements with the landowners.

At Slow Food Nation, MALT and its Taste of Marin partners, Marin Agricultural Institute/Marin Farmers Markets, and Marin Organic will be offering tours of some of the farms it has protected as part of the SFN Slow Journeys (unfortunately, all Marin tours are sold out, but check out those being hosted by our friends in neighboring Bay area counties. MALT also regularly offers its own Hikes & Tours of these and other family farms).

Also, as part of Slow Food Nation’s Slow Dinners, on Saturday, August 30, award-winning chef Annie Somerville will create a fabulous vegetarian dinner in the new private dining room at Greens restaurant with its spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay, all to benefit MALT.

Plus, best-selling cookbook author Deborah Madison, the original chef at Greens, will attend Saturday night’s benefit dinner and is offering two seats at her table. For a chance to win dinner with Deborah go to (where she writes a monthly column, “Local Flavors”), and sign up for a trial of Culinate’s weekly e-newsletter. Culinate will select one person to win two tickets to the benefit dinner.

Last but not least, stop by the Point Reyes Books stalls (they’re the official booksellers at SFN) at the three Slow Food Nation sites, Fort Mason, Civic Center and Herbst Theatre. Point Reyes Books is organizing a free author’s series and book signings (the schedule will be on its web site very soon), plus you can get a free copy of Marin Farm Families—Stories & Recipes, a $12 value, with every purchase over $25.00 made during Slow Food Nation weekend.

MALT helped produce the book which includes recipes by Amy Nathan-Weber, Peggy Smith, Gerald Gass, and other food professionals who live or work in West Marin. But for the most part, the recipes have not been tested in any kitchens but the ones belonging to the farming families who have provided them. The ingredients are sometimes straight from the field, like Tomales farmer David Little’s Pouch Potatoes, and sometimes straight from the pantry like the stale French bread used to make Mamma Grossi’s Bread Soup. In every case, they’re the product of a desire to satisfy a hunger for good food made with love for family and friends.

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To learn more about Marin Agricultural Land Trust and Marin’s family farms and the food they produce, visit

Images, from top: Farmland above Tomales Bay ©Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Strawberries from Sartori Farm, Tomales ©Paige Green for Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Tom Stubbs at his vineyard in Marin County ©Paige Green for Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Marin Farm Families—Stories & Recipes, a little book about diversity, adversity, tenaciousness, extraordinary devotion & FOOD!

Elisabeth Ptak is the Associate Director of Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and a writer and editor who lives and works in West Marin. She is the author of Ranches & Rolling Hills: Art of West Marin—A Land in Trust, published in 2008 by Windgate Press. She also wrote the script for An Abundant Land, The Story of West Marin Ranching, an audio driving tour of West Marin produced by MALT and narrated by Peter Coyote. It will be available to download as an MP3 file in late August at Read more >

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