In the early 1960s, Marin County’s plan for coastal development envisioned dramatic changes for West Marin, including plans for a city with a population of 125,000 on the shores of Tomales Bay. If implemented, the planned development would have ended a 150-year-old tradition of family farming. Change seemed inevitable, and many farmers "read the writing on the wall" and agreed to put their farms up for sale. As “For Sale” signs started to line rural roadways, farmers, environmentalists and other Marin citizens joined forces to do something about it.
A coalition formed to change Marin County zoning for large-scale development. Along the way, farmers and environmentalists – traditionally wary of one another – formed strong relationships based on shared common concerns. One friendship to arise from this coalition would go on to change the face of farmland protection, first in Marin and then across the nation.
Rancher Ellen Straus and biologist Phyllis Faber met over their opposition to residential development in West Marin. Ellen and her husband Bill ran a dairy on the eastern shores of Tomales Bay. Well ahead of her time, Ellen took an interest in the environment and sustainable farming, and raised her family to respect the land. Phyllis, meanwhile, was a meticulous botanist and active environmentalist. She knew family farmers like the Strauses, with deep vested interest in the land, were natural stewards of Marin County’s ecological balance.
Phyllis and Ellen teamed up to secure the future for farmers who wanted to stay on their land. They adapted the model of well-known land trusts such as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, which compensate landowners who maintain natural conditions on their properties. The land trust that Marin needed would support the families who chose to stay and farm. In 1980, Ellen and Phyllis founded MALT. The farmland trust became the first of its kind in America, and the model has been replicated to save family farms all over the country.
Since then MALT has worked with 74 farming families to preserve more than 47,000 acres. But the threat to unprotected family farms persists. Join the effort to save our local farms by coming to an event or becoming a member today.
Phyllis Faber tells the story of MALT’s founding: