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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Middle Ground

Air Date: Week of

Cows in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

We tend to think of nature and modern agriculture as competing, often in conflict. But in West Marin County, California they're closing the divide. That's because people who live in West Marin decided decades ago that nature and agriculture can coexist and even flourish. Guy Hand reports.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

We tend to think of nature and modern farming as competing, often in conflict. But in West Marin County, California, they're closing the divide. It's a place you can drive by a dairy, past old pick-up trucks and barns, and around the next bend spot Tule elk grazing on open grasslands.

The farms and the elk are both protected by law. That's because people who live in West Marin decided decades ago that nature and agriculture can co-exist and even flourish. Producer Guy Hand finds out that this mingling of the wild and domestic isn't easy, but the results are often delicious.


HAND: From this Vista Point on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, you could easily assume that Marin County is awash in tourists, tour buses, and tony suburban sprawl.


HAND: You'd hardly guess that just to the west, over the freeway and those house-encrusted hills, there's another, very different Marin County.


HAND: West Marin is as distinct from the frenetic eastern third of the county as our notion of nature is from culture. Here, you'll find oak-studded grasslands, redwood and Bishop Pine forests, streams carrying coho salmon, and beaches crowded with nothing more than fog.


HAND: And small towns, like Pt. Reyes Station, where the status symbol of choice is not the car or the hot tub, but the cow. People here put their faith in small-scale agriculture for food, and also as a way to keep development at bay and nature nearby. That's why you'll find cows not only on the hills, but on t-shirts, coffee cups, baseball caps, and storefront signs for the Bovine Bakery and the Cowgirl Creamery.


CONLEY: Milk just has so many components to it, and it's so complex, and every day it's a little bit different.

Sue Conley, founder of the Cowgirl Creamery surrounded by her award winning cheese. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

HAND: Sue Conley, a founder of the Cowgirl Creamery, makes cheese from the milk of local dairy cows, but also tries to illustrate this faith in mingling nature and culture to the three million annual tourists who come to West Marin and its national park, Pt. Reyes National Seashore.

CONLEY: So we thought it would be good to make the creamery behind glass so that visitors could start to understand the association between the land that they're seeing and the cows on the hill, and then what can be produced from these really high quality fields.


HAND: Today, you can see a couple of workers scrubbing round softball sized cheeses in a brine.

CONLEY: This is the Red Hawk, which is our big, stinky triple cream. The red rind comes from a wild bee-linen bacteria that grows here in Pt. Reyes.

HANLEY: Conley doesn't add the bacteria; it simply floats in on the cool West Marin air, a microscopic mingling of nature and culture.

Cows in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

CONLEY: We grow the white mold on the outside and then we wash it off with a salty brine, and the brine encourages this wild bee-linen bacteria.

HAND [TO CONLEY]: It's delicious.

CONLEY: It's delicious, I'm telling you (laughing).

HAND: It took decades of hard work and determination to keep West Marin pastoral, by using zoning laws, creating America's first agricultural land trust, setting aside sensitive land, and establishing Pt. Reyes National Seashore. This faith in the pastoral seems to be paying off. While farmers and ranchers and food producers struggle nationally, here there's a booming local food industry that includes small dairy and beef ranchers, cheesemakers, olive growers, and oyster farmers.


ALDEN: When you're walking out on the mud you kinda wanna keep your knees bent and slide your toe forward and keep your heal high.

HAND: Drew Alden, owner of the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, is giving me instructions on how to walk out to his oyster beds, fifty yards into Tomales Bay, without falling down.

Drew Alden of the Tomales Bay Oysters Company on Tomales Bay. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

ALDEN: And what that does is keep your heel from locking into the mud and you can maintain your balance a lot better.

HAND: It's low tide on a beautiful sunny morning, and with a little practice I'm able to slosh my way out to the string of mesh bags sitting on the mud flats. They're filled with oysters. Alden opens a bag and pulls one out.


ALDEN: So there you are. You want an oyster? Sorry I don't have any condiments for you.

HAND [TO ALDEN]: That’s okay.


HAND: Wow, really good. It has a great flavor.

ALDEN: The interesting thing about West Marin and the way agriculture is conducted here is that it’s, for the most part, not monoculture. You go to the Midwest and you see corn, and it's corn for miles or hundreds of miles. And it’s all monoculture which means that you have to take out all of the other species that live there and then plant your seed. Whereas, particularly in an oyster farm, we live in concert with all the other organisms that live in this farm.

HAND: Alden says an oyster farm actually enhances biodiversity. There's no fertilizer or feed to potentially contaminate the bay; the oysters just live off the nutrients naturally found in the water. And the oyster bags attract other native oysters, barnacles, and mussels, which then attract still more creatures.

ALDEN: Fish come in as the tide comes up. because you've got all these forage species attached to our farm. And then birds come in and chase the fish. So there's all this biodiversity that takes place as a result of this farm being here.

HAND: As Alden talks, I find myself sinking a little too deep in biodiversity.

HAND [TO ALDEN]: How do I get unstuck? I think I'm pretty well grounded here. (laughing)

ALDEN: Okay, bend your knee. Lift your heel.

HAND: Oh, okay.

ALDEN: And pull your toe out.


FINGER: How you folks doing?

HAND: A few miles up Highway 1, John Finger, another oyster farmer, is talking to some customers.

FINGER: Okay, so why don’t you go get yourself set up in the picnic area and then come back and we'll get you set up with oysters and you’ll be on your way

HAND: Finger's Hog Island Oyster Company produces about three million oysters a year. Business is booming. But this is where this story of pastoral bliss gets complicated. Oysters require pristine water and Tomales Bay is one of only four spots in California clean enough to grow oysters commercially. But the bay is not always clean enough.

FINGER: In 1998, we had 170 people get sick from eating oysters from this bay. From our company and a couple others.

HAND: On May 14, 1998 all six of the commercial shellfish growers in Tomales Bay were closed down for several weeks due to an unknown pathogen. Subsequent studies showed the culprit to be a virus, possibly from faulty septic tanks. But further testing showed that agriculture was adding significantly to pollution in the bay. John Finger:

FINGER: We've done enough studies to know that there are certain streams and certain watersheds that contribute most of the fecal coliform loading into this bay. And the characteristics of those watersheds are that they have ag operations and primarily dairies on them.

HAND: A century ago, dairies were purposely built along the creeks on the hills above Tomales Bay. Those waterways flushed waste and manure downward, away from farms. But nowadays, those same dairies have to fight gravity to keep from tainting the bay. The problem gets worse during California's infamous winter rainy season.

FINGER: During rainy weather the runoff has fecal coliform in it, and the fecal coliform count in the bay goes up and we get closed to harvesting. So if it rains, say, over a half inch in 24 hours we get closed anywhere from four to six days. And if another storm comes in before you get open it just tacks another four to six days on. So you can get some running closures of ten, 15 days.

HAND: Currently, oyster growers on Tomales Bay have to close down their operations about 70 days a year.


HAND: Gordon Bennett, a member of Sierra Club's Agricultural Advisory Committee, is taking me on a tour of the pasture lands above the bay. He quickly finds a place with problems.

BENNETT: First of all you see a bunch of cows over there, and right behind them you see what looks like a crack in the ground. And at one time that had trees on it. And the trees have all been trampled and destroyed by the cows. And the cows now can access that creek and all that cow manure and sediment is flowing down the creek, connecting to the tributary and flowing right into Tomales Bay. There's that all over the watershed.

HAND: Even still, Bennett wants agriculture to stay on this land. It's the only way, he believes, to keep the far worse threat of trophy homes and golf courses from taking over West Marin. But his attempt to find a middle ground has not always been popular with his peers.

BENNETT: Very often, people in the environmental movement, like people in any other movements, they tend to often times get very simplistic, and they have a solution that it has to be all wilderness or it's all urban. To go at a project that is much more subtle than that, that doesn't deal with absolutes but deals with balances, is often times much more difficult for people in the environmental movement to understand, appreciate and support.

HAND: That subtle landscape that blends nature and farming, isn't something that corporate agriculture always appreciates and supports either. The belief in a sharp divide between nature and culture is, after all, the rational behind factory farms. Proponents of industrial farming say it can free up land like West Marin for other, more environmentally friendly uses.

EVANS: I think there's a very basic assumption in that statement – that's that agriculture is bad and is detrimental to the environment, and I don't believe that.

Fourth generation Marin County cattle rancher David Evans standing in a pasture that he believes is environmentally healthy because of cattle grazing. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

HAND: David Evans is a fourth generation Marin County rancher who says the divide between agriculture and nature is a false one.

EVANS: I believe that if you fit the agriculture to the landscape that it is not detrimental to the ecosystem and the environment; that the two can live hand in hand.

HAND: In fact, Evans thinks – and studies back him up – that ranching fills an essential ecological niche in West Marin, where large grazing animals like the Tule elk once shaped the land.

EVANS: So, that begs the question, then, why do we have cattle here? Why not bring in the large herds of elk? And, essentially, this is where the compromise comes in. Large herds of elk in this area, to sustain the grasslands the way they once did would need to exist in very large numbers and be able to roam very large areas. That can't happen now. We have roads, highways, fences, so forth. Therefore, agriculture has been able to step in, keep the relationship that is existing between grass and ruminant animal for eons and maintain the landscape and the stability of that landscape.

HAND: When it became clear that Tomales Bay was threatened by pollution, the environmental and agricultural community did a remarkable thing: they came together. They worked together to created the Tomales Bay Watershed Council and other groups that then began searching for ways to solve the problem. Sharon Doughty is a dairy farmer finding solutions:


DOUGHTY: See these fencings right here? One time the cows during the winter time just moved through all these areas and, I mean, they're big. And when they're walking through an area that is wet, they will definitely chew it up. And so, we fenced this off so the cows couldn't go through here and it did two things: it not only made it so that they couldn’t plow it up but also we let that grass grow to about a foot, foot and a half, and it acts as a filter strip for any nutrients that might be here. And I think they've found it significantly improves the water quality coming off this hillside.


HAND: David Lewis, watershed management advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, has been helping Doughty and other farmers and ranchers stop agricultural runoff into Tomales Bay.

LEWIS: What you don't realize in looking at it today is three years ago you'd come out here and this would be bald soil, just bare soil just exposed to the rain storms through the whole winter. A lot of nutrients, a lot of bacteria, a lot of sediment was coming off of this lot.

HAND: Lewis says the simple buffer Doughty has created filters the runoff from up to 150 cows. He works in three counties and says that people in West Marin are unique in their willingness to make things right. Lewis thinks it has something to do with their shared sense of place.

David Lewis, Watershed Management Advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, helps ranchers keep agricultural runoff out of Tomales Bay. (Photo: Guy Hand Productions ©)

LEWIS: Do people roll their eyes sometimes when they hear somebody say something? You bet [LAUGHS], you know? But, for some reason here, they still figure out later on how to come back together. It's not perfect, and it never will be, and compromise always means that you gave something up. But I think they take the time to get comfortable with their compromise.

HAND: As people in West Marin work hard to find a middle ground where agriculture and nature can coexist, nature itself seems to be working on its own middle ground. The rare red-legged frog is finding a home in man-made farm ponds. Certain native grasses seem to grow better in the presence of cattle.

POLLAN: At this point, to separate out Pt Reyes as a natural landscape and as a cultural landscape, it's almost impossible. They're completely knitted together at this point.

HAND: Writer Michael Pollan has done a lot of thinking about the interface between nature and culture. Pollan, who is in West Marin on a writing retreat, has written several books on the subject, including "The Botany of Desire."

POLLAN: And that's what happens after a period of time in any natural landscape that we have had an influence on. Something new comes into the world, and that is the kind of middle landscape that humans create.

HAND: Pollan thinks that having working farms in beautiful places like West Marin and Pt. Reyes National Seashore might be a good thing. Instead of separating nature and agriculture and thereby hiding the consequences of our food choices from view, here they're on display for everyone to see.

POLLAN: Millions of people come here every year, and reminding us as a culture that there is a way to get our milk and our meat from a place that we regard as so beautiful we'll spend our vacation in it. That's a really important lesson for everybody. If we buy into this idea of agriculture as a sacrifice zone, we're really lost. And so to the extent that this place is a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way is incredibly valuable as a cultural expression.


HAND: Here, in a West Marin restaurant, I'm reminded, too, that there's never a perfect balance between landscape and food. My friends and I spend as much time debating that balance as enjoying our meal. We mull over how much pollution should be allowed into the bay, when grazing is over-grazing, where organic farming fits in. We feel none of the clarity that comes with words like "pristine," "untrammeled," and "wild." In this middle ground between nature and culture, there are no clear victories or sharp boundaries. But then again, something must be right when a place this beautiful can taste this good.

[MAN IN RESTAURANT SINGS A LINE: “Just remember it’s the farmer that feeds us all.” It’s a great song about…..]

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand in West Marin, California.



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