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April, 2007



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Mike Gale, Rancher:
West Marin Ranching In Transition
By Mike Gale, President, Marin Farm Bureau

Being a rancher is a constant challenge, here in West Marin and elsewhere.Ranching itself is in transition everywhere in the county. One hundred years ago, there were over 200 dairies in West Marin, whereas today we have only 28. We lost the 29th dairy in February, when my neighbor and good friend, Vic Chapetta, sold his herd of cows and closed his dairy. It was a sad day for him, his family, and the dairy industry.
Most people know me as a producer of grass-fed beef and organic apples in Chileno Valley, in the far northwest section of Marin. In many ways, I don't fit the prototype definition of a rancher, most of who were born and bred from ranching families. I was raised and tested on the streets and playgrounds of Los Angeles, educated at USC on a football scholarship, trained as a Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela, licensed as a private investigator, participated for many years as a supernumerary in the Hawaii Opera Theatre, and worked in federal anti-poverty programs. I have also been a long-time competitor in Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing. Never the less, here I am, a rancher now representing 160 ranching and farming families in Marin county as the new president of the Marin County Farm Bureau.

Not having started out as a rancher has offered me both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge came in the steep learning curve needed to get up to speed on what ranching really entails on a daily basis. I found that ranching demands a passionate dedication to the land, and that it most certainly is not a 9-5 job. Ranching is a life, not a lifestyle as some would say, but life itself. It is now a life that I love and want to protect and enhance with whatever talents my past has given me.

The opportunity inherent in my "other" background has allowed me to see the beef industry with fresh eyes and develop new ideas to both diversify and take advantage of niche marketing as the best way to retain control over the pricing and well being of my animals. Chileno Valley Natural Grass-fed Beef, the ranch of my wife Sally and myself, maintains a closed herd. That means that the animals live their whole lives in Chileno Valley, in peace with their companions on the land they trust.

As in much of ranching, timing is very important. Our timing on re-inventing the ranch given to my wife by her mother, a member of the Dolcini family, was very fortunate. After we had been selling our grass-fed beef to individuals for about two years, Michael Pollan's article on the horrible feedlot system came out in the New York Times magazine.

Pollan's article, "This Steer's Life," followed a calf he had bought from a ranch in North Dakota through the feedlot system to slaughter. At the end of his long article, which pointed out the problems inherent in the industrial beef model, he referred to a web site:, where families could find a producer locally who sold grass-fed beef. Since Sally and I were already listed on the Eatwild site, the calls started coming in and helped to jumpstart our business. I continue to evolve in ranching and learn more and more about the art of being on the land.

West Marin is a wonderful place to be a rancher. The weather is mostly kind and the cool summers have made the grasses of the area highly prized for nutrition and taste (at least to a cow). The grasses have been thought of as special for quite a long time; the butter that was sent to San Francisco in the old days by barge from Tomales even had a special stamp on it (PR for Point Reyes) and generated a premium price. Those same grasses still produce excellent cattle, sheep, goats, and dairy products, and may be the basis of a resurgence of Marin agriculture. The success of the Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Blue, and the re-formulated Rouge et Noir may well lead the way to identifying Marin as a premier destination for outstanding cheeses and other dairy products. People in Marin also have a bounty of local meat and produce to choose from!

The California Farm Bureau traces its roots back to 1919 and the Cooperative Extension Service. Today, there are over 92,000 member in California, and over 6 million nationwide. The purpose of Farm Bureau is to "surface, analyze and solve the problems of farmers and ranchers." Many of our members are not farmers, but support the goals of the organization and the need to have a collective voice at the Civic Center, as well as in Sacramento and Washington D.C.

The Marin Farm Bureau is most concerned about and focused on seeing ranching and farming succeed - whether it be traditional or organic-dairy, beef, sheep, goats, vegetables and fruit, or shellfish. Only by seeing our products succeed in the marketplace will we be assured that the hills will continue to be dotted by cattle and sheep, not boutique farms and horse ranches. The Slow Food movement has a term, co-producers, that describes the relationship between the rancher/grower and the customers. It means that you, the customer, and me, the rancher, are partners in a larger sense, partners in making sure that the agricultural sector which produces all our food is healthy and sustainable right here where we live.

Please support your local food producers, be they ranchers or farmers. I invite each and every one of you to learn more about the people that produce your food. Also, if you believe that Marin is a unique place that needs to have a productive, sustainable (read that profitable) agricultural base, then joining the Farm Bureau as a sustaining member will help protect that base. You can call the Pt. Reyes Farm Bureau office at (415) 663-1231.

The Marin Farm Bureau sponsors or participates in many events throughout the year, including the Western Weekend parade and celebration (first part of June) in Point Reyes Station. We sell barbecued chicken, using the Grossi family secret marinade! Come see us early because our barbecued chicken always sells out fast! Farm Day at the Marin Civic Center is in March, during which hundreds of school children learn about Marin's food system from local ranchers and farmers. Both these events are fun for the whole family, and we would love to see you there and have a chat.

As someone with a foot in both the traditional and organic sides of agriculture, perhaps I am the right choice at this time to be the Marin Farm Bureau president. I certainly intend to give it my best shot.

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