North Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore
Back in August Tom emailed me an article from Bay Area Bites written by Stephanie Rosenbaum. Marin Sun Farms’ philosophy is their livestock are 100% grass fed and pasture raised. To pass the message on, they conduct tours of their farm every month from spring until the end of September. It looked interesting, so we booked a tour.
(Click on the photos for larger versions)
Early on a weekday morning we set off. It was still dark and an enormous moon hung low in the sky. We took Highway 280 north. As it was officially the rush hour, we were expecting a lot more traffic than we normally experience on a weekend. Yes, there was more traffic, but we were able to travel at our normal pace until we reached 19th Avenue in San Francisco at the end of 28o. Obviously there was more traffic heading south.
We have come prepared for all kinds of weather. In the directions we were advised to dress in layers. As it is a walking tour, we took the precaution of wearing hiking boots.
When the sun came up we knew it was going to be a beautiful day. There was a little bit of fog about but once we had driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, the day just got better and better.
In Fairfax we stopped for breakfast. Afterwards we took a short walk around Fairfax village. There were lots of eating places, all unique, and many interesting shops.
At 8.30 we set off again towards Point Reyes Station driving along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. The going was a bit slow through Fairfax due to rush hour and there were lots of children making their way to school. Once past Fairfax, the road became really scenic. Lots of trees, some of which were redwoods, and lots of wonderful views. Before long we were in the Point Reyes National Seashore which is a pristine and protected area and one of the jewels of California. Point Reyes is really a special place. There is nothing else like it. Maybe because it is totally unique. After all, this is where the Pacific Plate, on which Point Reyes sits, is slowly moving north and, in the process, is slowly grinding along the edge of the North American Plate, on which most of California sits. The whole of Point Reyes used to be much further south and that explains why the geography is so different from the mainland. Not that Point Reyes is an island of course, as there is no bridge to reach it.
We drove through Olema and, still keeping to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, we took the road to the lighthouse. The meeting time was 10 a.m sharp but of course we arrived at Rogers Ranch, which is very close to the Estero Trail, at 9:15. We continued driving towards the lighthouse to while away some time. The weather is a little different here. The sun is shining but the temperature has dropped to 55 degrees and it was breezy.
Before we reached the lighthouse, we took the turning to North Beach. Neither of use has been here so it was like a mini adventure. The road dead ends in a big car park. We had the place almost to ourselves. There is a long sandy beach and a few fishermen were at the edge of the shore and a host of seagulls were screeching and squalling. It is a very exposed location and the wind whipped around.
Dave Evans of Marin Sun Farms
At 9.45 we headed back towards Rogers Ranch and arrived in good time. There were a few other cars around so thought more people had arrived. It turned out there were two other people already there. The four of us stood around for a while waiting in the car park. Just after 10 Dave Evans, the owner of Sun Hill Farm, sauntered out of his house holding a coffee cup in his hand. He said we would wait for a short while for more folks to turn up. 22 people had signed up for the tour. He chatted away about his interest in sustainable farming. By 10:30 four other people had joined us. Did all the others get lost I wonder?
Dave told us that he was raised on the nearby H Ranch. His grandparents and parents were traditional dairy farmers but after he went to college to study Farm Management he became interested in grass fed beef and using no chemicals. He disliked the idea of cattle being fattened up on feedlots where they were corn fed, kept in small pens and pumped full of antibiotics. Cows are built to eat grass not corn. His dream was to run a sustainable farm. He became inspired by the idea of running a sustainable farm and raising beef just on grass through from calving to slaughtering.
He knew where to start and finish but the bit in the middle – the fattening up part – had to be worked out. He had a two year association with Bill Niman of Niman Ranch. Bill Niman is no longer connected with Niman Ranch and runs a small farm in nearby Bolinas where he raises cattle, goats and turkeys. He and Dave are still friends. In 1999 Dave started Marin Sun Farms with 25 head of beef. Since then he has signed up other historic ranches on Point Reyes and farms from further afield who raise grass fed beef.
Eight week old laying hens at Marin Sun Farms
Dave went into the history of the area. For thousands of years Point Reyes has been a pastoral settlement. The Miwok Indians were the first to gather, fish and hunt here, when the tule elk roamed freely and grizzly bears abounded. By the beginning of the 19th century the Spanish government were giving out land grants for the expansion of cattle ranching on the peninsula. In 1857 the law firm of Shafter, Shafter, Park and Heydenfeldt obtained over 50,00 acres of farmland on Point Reyes and set up the dairy farms now known as the A – Z historic ranches. It was a very successful operation with large quantities of best quality butter and cheese being shipped into San Francisco. In 1962 the Point Reyes National Seashore was formed and the land was acquired through eminent domain. David’s family lease the land back from the Park Service. David now leases Rogers Ranch which his uncle used to farm.
David’s story and his approach to farming was fascinating to listen to. I glanced at my watch and saw that David had been talking almost non stop – apart from someone asking the odd question – for an hour and a half. All that time we had been standing in the same place. It was time to actually see around the farm. We walked past the house and dairy barn which were built in 1943 and David pointed out a bee hive. He explained that water for the farm comes from well and spring water and he plans to go solar.
Our first stop was at the Brood House which contains the one and two week old chicks. They arrive as day old chicks and stay in the Brood House for three weeks. The temperature inside must be kept at a constant level. To ensure there are no drafts, every crack in the old wooden building has been covered with insulating material. He opened the door for us to look inside. We could not see very much from outside but could hear the chicks chirping away. These chicks would be for raised for meat not eggs. When they are big enough they will be transferred to bigger cages which can be transported to the field. There they will be able to graze on the grass. Every day the cages are moved so they have fresh grass. Chickens raised for meat are not very adventurous and do not want to roam very far.
Eggs from Marin Sun Farms ready to be washed
Our next stop was large wooden building where the eight week old laying hens were kept. They had plenty of room to move about and when the door opened several of them managed to get out of the door but they didn’t get far. When the hens are ready to lay eggs they are transferred to mobile chicken houses which, like the meat birds, are moved out to the pasture and moved every day. The difference here though is that every day the doors are opened and they are free to roam where they will. They are guarded during the day by a large white Great Pyrenees dog whose job it is to protect them from predators. The chickens scratch around in the grass and feed on insect and larva. In the middle of the mobile chicken house are the nesting boxes. The floor of the houses are made out of open metal work so all the chicken droppings fall through and fertilize the pasture underneath.
On our way out to the fields we were shown the Egg Processing Room. Trays of eggs were stacked high. The eggs are collected twice and day and brought to this room to be washed and packed. They are sold at farmers markets for $7 a dozen. As we carried on up the path, Dave pointed out the electric fence and we were warned not to touch it as it carried 900 volts, enough to give us quite a jolt. While we were walking, he was explaining the life cycle of grass and what happens when a field is over grazed.
Marin Sun Farms. We had a wonderful time and learned a lot about sustainable farming.
We finished the tour by driving a couple of miles down the road to look at some of his dairy cattle out in a field which had a couple of radio masts in a fenced off area. Dave said the masts were used for ship to shore communication. There were about 50 cows in the field, including Hereford, Angus, Short Horns and a couple of Blue Short Horns. They were all pregnant and due to calve in March. Although we are nearly into October there is still plenty of grass for them to feed on.
At 1:00 the farm tour ended. Tom and I made our way back to Point Reyes Station to have lunch at the Marin Sun Farms butchers shop and cafe just outside the town at 10905 Shoreline Highway 1. Not only can you buy genuine grass fed meat at a reasonable price but they also make the best hamburgers ever. We ordered a beef burger with cheddar and house-smoked bacon, and a goat burger topped with caramelized onions. They were served with a delicious green salad and a pickle. They both looked so wonderful we cut them in two and had half each.
It was a very educational and interesting day and it was refreshing to hear someone who is so passionate about what he does. The farm tours start up again next spring so, if you want the same experience, be sure to check online next year.