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Driving north, the transition from Sonoma to Mendocino County is at first imperceptible, with nothing more than small highway signs to signal the change. Yet before long, a palpable sense of place takes hold as the mind absorbs the vastness of Mendocino County.

Mendocino County has a wild, rustic feel, a quality of peace, of quiet and, after the sun sets, of real darkness, far from the light pollution of more densely populated areas. On clear nights ? and there are plenty, especially above the fog line and in the inland areas ? the sky is spectacular.

Like Sonoma County, Mendocino County holds within its embrace ancient redwood forests, fertile valleys, distinct growing regions, countless microclimates and a long stretch ? 129 miles ? of scenic coastline.?There is plenty of open space and undeveloped land, and agriculture thrives.

There are large and small ranches and farms, and a robust organic movement in both viticulture and agriculture. Many local products bear a ?Mendocino Renegades? label, which indicates farming practices that surpass those required for federal organic certification. In 2004, Mendocino County voters approved Measure H, which bans GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops.

The first vineyards were planted here in the 19th century. Today, there are more than 300 vineyards and nearly 100 wineries. More than a hundred wineries, including many in Sonoma County, carry a Mendocino County designation, indicating the source of the grapes, on their labels.

When it comes to agriculture, Mendocino County?s diversity rivals that of any region of California, with everything from all manner of greens, root crops, melons, tomatoes, peppers, apples, pears, peaches and strawberries to honey, organic eggs, pastured chickens, grass-fed beef and, perhaps surprisingly, organic wheat. There are several olive orchards, two olive mills and, in Fort Bragg, a thriving fishing industry. A sole cheese enterprise, Shamrock Artisan Goat Cheese, is based in Willits.

Feisty independence

?I?m tired of losing chickens,? says Donna Bishop of Bishop Ranch, located northeast of Gualala at an elevation of about 800 feet.

Last year, a bear took nearly a dozen of her laying hens on a single night; a neighbor lost a goat the same night. Bobcats, mountain lions and neighbors? dogs help themselves to the chickens, and crows steal eggs.?

After nearly 40 years of farming here, Bishop plans to install an electric fence this spring, which will keep out the dogs and the bobcats but not the mountain lions, the bears or those wily crows.?

Bishop keeps about 50 laying hens of different breeds housed in large coops where they sleep at night. By day, they can roam as they like within their fenced areas, though they also have the protection of covered day rooms that discourage the crows. Donna sells her eggs at the Gualala farmers market, which she also manages, for $6.50 a dozen. When the market closes for the year in late fall, she has a list of customers who will buy her eggs during the winter months.?

Each year, Donna raises a few meat chickens, as well, though she has not responded to customers? requests to increase production of her delicious birds, as well fed as any you are likely to encounter. The few Red Cornish hens she is raising this spring will likely go to the chef at Sea Ranch, who buys much of her harvest, including wildcrafted ? i.e., gathered, not farmed ? watercress, nettle tips, huckleberries and porcini mushrooms.

When the market is in season, Donna also sells tomatoes, peppers, berries and a number of value-added products, including her homemade salsa and famous nori snack, made from seaweed she gathers in the spring.?

Farmers markets

Although some farms welcome drop-in visitors and others will let you stop by if you make an appointment, much of Mendocino?s bounty is offered at the county?s eight farmers markets, three of which now operate year-round. Year-round markets are held in Ukiah, Philo and Willits; seasonal markets take place in Gualala, Mendocino, Ukiah, Redwood Valley and Laytonville.

?The Saturday Ukiah market is doing really well,? its manager, Scott Cratty, says, ?with between 7 and 9 organic produce vendors each week and a total of about 15 vendors all winter.?

When the weather cooperates, there?s local seafood from the Fish Peddler, based in Fort Bragg. John Ford Ranch Natural Beef, based in Willits, is popular, as is Shamrock?s goat cheese. Lover?s Lane Farm produces excellent honey.

Haven for tourists who love to cook

Tourists love Mendocino County, especially Mendocino Village itself, with its Victorian charm nestled flush against dramatic coastal cliffs and its unobstructed view of the sea.

Several destinations cater to visitors who want to savor the region?s bounty, either at nationally acclaimed restaurants such as Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino and St. Orres in Gualala or even at their own private tables. Food lovers can sink their teeth and their hands into Mendocino?s harvest at such locations as Mar Vista Cottages at Anchor Bay, where there is an organic garden and orchard, complete with happy laying hens, available to guests.

Cottages at Little River Cove, just south of Mendocino Village, have fully equipped kitchens as well, which makes it easy to be more than a window shopper at the Mendocino farmers market, held on Fridays from noon to 2 p.m. from May through October.

In Philo, the Apple Farm offers weekend classes that include an overnight stay in one of the pretty cabins tucked among the apple trees. Here, Karen Bates, daughter of Sally Schmidt ? who, along with her husband, Don, founded the world-famous French Laundry in Yountville ? conducts cooking classes while her husband, Tim Bates, runs the farm, with its 32 acres of organic apples and produce. There?s a farm stand here, too.

Challenges

Like Sonoma County, Mendocino County struggles to preserve its agricultural heritage. Long a region known for its extraordinary pears, for example, many old orchards have been ripped out, and there are plans to remove more.?

?It may be too late to save our pear industry,? Mimi Booth, president of the farmers market board of directors, says, ?though there is one farm that sends pears to the market.? ?

Locals are vigilant in Mendocino County and they have formed several citizen organizations to combat those who would undermine the region?s character. And with the successes of the GMO initiative and the Mendocino Renegades under their belts, they may have cause for optimism.

Michele Anna Jordan can be contacted via e-mail at michele@micheleannajordan.com.