Coming Home

A Legacy of Dairying in Marin Comes Full Circle

By Molly Miller

Photo by Michael Woolsey for MALT

Years ago, before he was born, Jim McIsaac’s family had a couple of deer hound pups named Cloudy and Thunder. One day the pups took off up to Black Mountain. Jim’s dad rode up there on a horse, found them and brought them back on his saddle.

Like Black Mountain, Jim’s father, Neil McIsaac, looms large over this 527-acre ranch on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road in West Marin. Jim was only five years old when his family was forced to leave here for the construction of Nicasio Reservoir, but he does remember it. In fact, it’s sort of burned in his memory just like the vivid family memory of his dad riding down off Black Mountain with the lost pups on his saddle.

“The house was right over there,” he says, pointing across the pasture where he’s now standing next to his brown Chevy pickup. He has red skin that sees some weather. He’s wearing a cap from the Petaluma feed store, Wranglers, hiking boots and a fleece that says Sierra Organics. (Sierra Organics is the name of the distributor for the certified organic milk from his dairy.)

The McIsaac family has been leasing this property to graze dairy heifers for 136 years. Jim’s great-grandfather, a dairyman from Nova Scotia, took a lease on the place in 1881. Jim’s dad and Jim’s uncle, Don McIsaac, took over from Jim’s grandfather and worked it as partners, continuing to run dairy cattle here until Jim took the lease.

The dairy barn and Jim’s childhood home are long gone now, removed as part of the reservoir project. But the pasture remains. Jim had been grazing here for nearly 40 years when one day, about a year ago, a “For Sale” sign appeared on the ranch. The owners had no interest in selling to a farmer, and Jim thought he would soon be forced off this land for the second time in his life.

Marin County has designated this land suitable for residential construction under its zoning, and because of the scenic location, just a few miles from Point Reyes National Seashore, it was pretty clear these wide open pastures dotted with the McIsaac family Holsteins would soon become a subdivision.

But it didn’t end that way.

Jim and his wife Sue have recently managed to purchase the ranch and are working with Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) to place an agricultural conservation easement on it. The easement not only restricts non-agricultural development on this land, it also changes the value and the price, making it possible for a farmer to afford the land that might instead be coveted for homes. MALT will raise the funds to purchase the easement through private donations, which will be matched by public funds from Marin’s county’s tax-payer funded Farmland Preservation Program, also known as Measure A. A Mandatory Agricultural Use (MAU) provision in the easement will guarantee the ranch will stay in agriculture.

“It’s been so long coming it’s hard to believe,” Jim says of finally being able to own the land his family has rented for four generations. He reflects on it as he stands on the highest point on the ranch where his cows haven’t had a chance to graze yet after the winter rains brought chest-high grass. “It took so long for the rain to stop, we’ve been slammed,” Jim comments. “We had some fence to get built, thistles mowed, heifers moved around. It never ends. We’ve got to start hauling manure next. And then silage …”

Photo by Michael Woolsey

There aren’t many trees on the place, but you can tell the wind blows. The smattering of trees all lean northward. Rock outcrops are scattered across the mostly south-facing ranch and support a diverse range of native species. Meadowlarks are singing their summer song as they nest on the ground in these high pastures. California quail also call this ranch home. The California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) identifies habitat on or within one mile of the ranch that supports several rare species, including Marin checker lily, fragrant fritillary, pallid bat and foothill yellow-legged frog. Their habitat will be protected with the easement.

There are no structures or electricity at all on the ranch, only a few water troughs, one main cross-fence and a set of small corrals. Jim runs 80 cows (but could run more) — mostly Holstein replacement heifers for his dairy but also a few beef cows. When the heifers are ready to calve, he brings them home to the dairy in Novato to join the milking herd.

The heifers looking out over the top rail of the corrals Jim’s dad built below belong to the Lafranchi family, owners of Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. Jim subleases 225 acres of the ranch to the Lafranchis for grazing their replacement heifers. Both the Lafranchi operation and Jim’s dairy operation have been certified organic for several years, and having access to these herbicide-free pastures is essential for their operations.

Organic Certification

At the time the McIsaacs began dairying here, during the Gold Rush and for the next hundred years or so, West Marin was the main supplier of milk, cream, cheese and butter in the region. The many dairies in and around Point Reyes in the 1800s delivered butter and cheese to San Francisco by schooner and rail.

Now, there are far fewer dairies in Marin than in the previous century, and the industry has changed. There were 150 Marin County dairies in 1960, but there are only 25 today, according to the Marin County Cooperative Extension. Large dairies in other regions provide most of the milk products for the region and beyond while Marin’s dairies have had to find a special niche in order to compete — organic milk and artisan cheese making. In 1994 Straus Family Creamery near Marshall was the first dairy in Marin to go organic. Cowgirl Creamery began using Straus milk in 1997 to make organic cheese and expanded to buy from other organic dairies, raising the demand for organic milk in Marin. Now at least 70% of the dairies in Marin are organic.

Going organic helps dairies survive here. “There are so many dairies in the valley and they can produce milk cheaper,” Jim explains. But because Jim’s operation is organic, now he’s able to milk fewer cows and still make it because he is able to sell his product at a premium.

An organic dairy has to be very careful about the feed for the cows. He takes care of thistle and weeds by hand, digging them out with a shovel one by one, rather than spraying an herbicide that would mean he couldn’t put the organic label on his milk.

His operation, with the milking taking place in Novato, is dependent on this additional land and pasture here by Nicasio, and now he will own it and continue to steward it with help from MALT. According to Michelle Cooper, MALT’s stewardship manager, “Jim is such a great steward of the land. He takes such good care of his place, and it’s really satisfying to see him take ownership of this place.”

“There’s no way we could own this land without MALT,” Jim comments. “We wouldn’t have a chance.”

“I just turned 63 and took out a 20-year note,” he says, laughing at himself. “I always thought if we had the chance to buy it we would try. I was afraid if we didn’t try … we’d always be sorry.”

Photo by Michael Woolsey

The Steward

Invasive thistle control is clearly a point of pride for Jim. Very few manage to survive him. He carries his shovel in his jeep and his pickup.

“I will get after that distaff,” he says, pointing to small group of invasive thistle. “I worked hard to dig up the purple star. To control thistle, you really have to hate thistle.”

While most ranchers use 4-wheelers, Jim likes to use a motorcycle. This land is steep. He can get to more places on 2 wheels. He has passed on his love of motorcycles and his hatred of thistles to his kids, and he likes to tell the story of his daughter Katie, who was out on the pasture on the motorcycle and came home with a purple star thistle across her handlebars. She was just a kid, but she knew enough to pull it up. Later, Katie did the work to go through the organic certification process for this land. She’s now 35 and in seed sales.

“The kids were a big help growing up,” Jim recalls. “They could run any piece of equipment. If they saw a heifer off by herself, they knew enough to come tell me. They all have a great work ethic. They didn’t have any choice.”

His wife, Sue, had her own cows in high school, and she milked them and sold the milk to Petaluma Creamery. She helps Jim with the cattle and does the accounting. His kids have all been connected in some way to careers in agriculture. He has a few grandkids, too. Someday they may run dairy heifers here, pulling thistle and thinking of their great-grandfather riding his horse down from Black Mountain.

This story was written for Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). MALT is a member-supported, non-profit organization created in 1980 to protect Marin County farmland. Some of the Bay Area’s most highly acclaimed meats, dairy products and organic crops are produced on farmland protected by MALT, totaling nearly 50,000 acres on 81 farms and ranches.