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Marin County ag deal protects land for Hog Island oyster operation, beef production

It’s no coincidence that grass fed beef burgers are usually on the menu at Hog Island Oyster Company restaurants.

More than just a hamburger, it’s a symbol of the collaborative relationship between two of the North Bay’s most recognized sustainable food producers — Hog Island and Stemple Creek Ranch.

Committed to land and sea conservation in west Marin County, the coastal oyster and beef businesses have become poster children for their advocacy of circular food models: using waste byproducts like oyster shells or manure to regenerate the soil, thereby creating benefits to both water and land, sustaining ongoing food production.

That relationship is getting a boost from a $1.1 million infusion from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust via an agricultural easement for Hog Island’s 250-acre Leali Ranch in Marshall. The easement provides special protection to creeks and riparian areas, and requires that 240 acres of the ranch’s range land remain in agricultural production.

The easement is the first of its kind to include mariculture, or marine farming, in the trust’s ongoing terrestrial efforts.

“The connection between land and sea is something we feel very strongly about,” said Thane Kreiner, the Marin ag land trust’s new CEO.

The well-timed easement comes on the heels of a financially devastating year for Hog Island. CEO and co-founder John Finger considered selling the historic west Marin ranch acquired in 2019, a move that would upset the delicate balance with Stemple Creek, as well as plans for agriculture and cultivation of marine organisms.

“We weren’t sure we were going to survive,” Finger said of his operation.

During the worst of the pandemic, Hog Island furloughed much of its 300-person staff as its restaurant business faltered.

The easement has helped to right the ship, giving Hog Island much-needed financial breathing room while strengthening long-term agricultural sustainability with Marin ag land trust partners like beef producer Stemple Creek.

“Beyond simply surviving, the easement affords us flexibility to do more — for our customers, staff, suppliers, the broader community and the environment itself,” Finger said.

Easements are a legally-binding agreement requiring landowners to actively work toward conservation efforts that include productive farmland, wildlife habitats and limits on development. They are attached to the title, protecting the land in perpetuity, regardless of ownership.

Created in 1980, Marin ag land trust’s goal is to preserve the quickly shrinking agricultural land in Marin and its diverse ecosystem. In total, the trust has preserved nearly 55,000 acres, much of it contiguous, allowing for sustainable cooperation between owners.

That’s where Stemple Creek comes in. Relying on much-needed grazing land for its cattle, Stemple Creek leases and manages almost 200 acres of the Hog Island-owned ranch in Marshall. Grass fed meat pastured on the land is sold to the oyster company’s restaurants, as well as grocers and other eateries throughout the Bay Area.

Though cows and oysters may seem like strange bedfellows, the link actually benefits both. Cows leave behind organic fertilizer that improves rather than depletes the soil, said Stemple Creek owner Loren Poncia, a fourth-generation rancher. Managed grazing also helps with carbon sequestering and drought tolerance, fostering the health of the symbiotic relationship between land and water.

“Properties with grasslands are scarce in this area and I need as much grassland as I can get,” Poncia said.

Though his total herd is only a few hundred animals, they roam on 15 properties with Marin ag land trust easements, limiting overgrazing and runoff into Tomales Bay.

“It’s a dance with Mother Nature,” Poncia said, noting cows forage to make high quality meat, while improving the soil above and below ground.

“I appreciate that Hog Island trusted me to steward the property even on the shores of Tomales Bay,” he said. “They understand the importance of grazing and keeping grasslands.”

It’s a collaborative model that’s proving successful.

“The future of food systems is a circular model. As with most of our easements Hog Island Oyster’s easement affords special protection to creeks and streams,” Kreiner said.

Hog Island’s Leali Ranch has tremendous agricultural, environmental and historical significance, he said, and the land trust shared the company’s desire to preserve and steward the land in perpetuity.

With the threat of increasing acidification of the oceans due to climate change, the seafood industry is facing serious challenges as seen by delayed fishing and crab seasons and higher levels of carbon sequestered in the oceans.

That leads to less calcium carbonate in the waters, a key building block used by crabs, mollusks and other organisms to build strong, hard shells and other organic structures, according to recent scientific studies.

“Culture of oysters and seaweed are important for ecosystem services. Mollusks are a great source of purification and micronutrients for the ocean,” Finger said.

Eight acres of Hog Island’s ranch will be devoted to support for oyster processing, as well as test projects that use ground oyster shells to enrich the soil for cattle, making sea salt with seawater used in production and compost made with seaweed and oyster shells. Educational programs are also hosted at the ranch.

“We’re trying to connect the dots. If you want a healthy bay, you have to have healthy watersheds,” Finger said. “Oyster farming isn’t a get-rich scheme. This allows us to keep our operation viable.”

It’s all about the consumers doing their part, too.

“Eat more oysters,” Kreiner said. “The sustainable culture of oysters and seaweed are a great way to combat climate change.”

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