West Marin Growers, at the time completely volunteer run, knew that it needed to find a way to increase its visibility and reach, both within the farming community and through outreach to food service and consumers, according to Conley. Part of that was finding a name that spoke to its reason for being. “So we came up with two words, ‘Marin’ and ‘Organic,’ to describe where and how,” she recalls. “It was a very simple concept.” In 1999, the nonprofit known as Marin Organic was born.
The organization aimed, internally, to identify criteria for sustainable and organic local food production and to work with the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner to establish standards for organic certification. On the consumer-facing side, even thought it was still the early days of the world wide web, these organizing farmers used technology to create a website that listed the profiles of all of its member farmers, fostering a sense of personal connection and community with consumers and local restaurants. Marin Organic member farmers also sold their produce at various regional farmers’ markets, furthering their direct connection with customers.
“All of us had our heads down. We weren’t really doing this in an organized way. We were just developing these ideas together,” says Conley. “What happened once Marin Organic was established was organic growth of organic agriculture.” The three pillars of sustainability—economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and social equity—all coalesced in one place and moment.”
“It was a really interesting time, when things were taking off,” says Michael Dimmock, the consultant who helped facilitate the launch of Marin Organic. “It was early to mid-’90s, about the same time that Slow Food was coming to the U.S., and awareness started to develop around local organic food systems.” At the same time, Dimmock adds, industrial food producers were flooding the markets and prices were dropping, so collaboration became about survival—strategizing to find a way to make it as a small farmer. “What happened in West Marin worked because there were a lot of creative people who had a similar value set,” adds Dimmock. “They were environmentally minded, they cared about quality and health, so the only struggles were about how you organize, and where money would come from. They worked through that and it [Marin Organic] became the first organization of its kind that was organically focused.”
Like-Minded Local Government Officials
Four-term Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, along with Stacy Carlsen, who was appointed Marin Agricultural Commissioner in 1995 and remains in the position today, were both essential partners to these West Marin and Sonoma farmers. So was then UCCE Marin County Farm Advisor Ellie Rilla (the fifth after Boissie), who worked closely with Marin Organic, facilitating relationships with local and state agricultural departments, and creating programs for farmers who were interested in moving from conventional to organic agriculture.
“For instance, Ellie Rilla and the UCCE staff organized a program in 1998 at our building in Point Reyes,” says Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith. “It was for dairies that were having financial problems, [helping them] to create a secondary income through cheesemaking. We didn’t know if anyone would come, but it was full—the Lafranchis [now owners of Nicasio Valley Cheese Company] came, the Giacomminis [now owners of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company] ... important dairy families showed up.”
As small farms and producers thrived, forming direct relationships with consumers and food service partners, and Marin Organic, MALT, UCCE and the Marin County Agricultural Commission worked together to fuel this growth, the outside world began to take notice.
In 2005, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles visited the Bay Area. Their limousine made a beeline to West Marin, the royal couple eager to examine the soil, sample the produce and see for themselves what the buzz was about. In 2007, Saveur, a popular national food magazine, highlighted various members of the small-scale farming community in an article entitled “Farming for the Love of Food,” authored by writer Peggy Knickerbocker.
All the while, top chefs were requesting more Marin and Sonoma-grown organic bounty for their menus.
As consumers and chefs recognized both the superior taste and the environmental significance of fresh, sustainably farmed organic food, the practices and innovation of North Bay producers set the bar.