Last week I painted a not-so-pretty portrait of life for beef cattle raised on commercial feedlot farms; specifically Coalinga’s Harris Ranch Beef, the largest commercial feedlot operation on the West Coast.
This week, in contrast, I’d like to draw attention to a local North Bay ranch family that puts humane husbandry practices and sustainability at the forefront of their beef operation: Stemple Creek Ranch. Their grass-fed beef is what I choose to serve my family.
Loren & Lisa Poncia are very proud of their farm . . . and they have every right to be. The Poncias, who live in Novato California, manage Stemple Creek Ranch–a certified organic Black Angus cattle farm located just a few miles north of the town of Tomales in West Marin.
The 1,000 acre property has been in Loren’s family for four generations beginning with his great-grandfather, Angelo, who immigrated from Italy to Marin County in 1902. Originally, the farm was a dairy and creamery that shipped milk and butter to San Francisco via railroad train from the nearby town of Fallon. The family continued to run the dairy on the ranch until 1989, when the focus shifted away from dairy cows to raising free-range grass-fed beef and sheep.
Last fall I had the pleasure of attending one of their farm tours where I spent three hours learning about the practice of raising sustainably farmed, ethically treated animals for consumption. It was definitely time well spent.
The forty-minute drive from my home in Novato to the ranch takes me on a winding two lane rural road through farmland and fog covered fields that characterize the county west of Petaluma. I am the first to arrive for the 11:00 AM farm tour and am met by Loren Poncia. He is an affable guy with a warm smile and an easy-going manner who welcomes me like family.
As we wait for others to arrive, Loren chats me up while pointing out the boundaries of the ranch in each direction. He grew up on this land, and its wide pastures were his playground. It is instantly clear that he has a genuine love for this place, and wants to share his passion for ranch life with his two daughters: three-year old Avery, and baby Julianna. He hopes they will one day inherit the legacy, becoming the 5th generation of Poncias to call the farm their home. For now, Loren, Lisa, & the girls commute to the farm from Novato, a compromise they made to accommodate Lisa’s work as a lawyer in San Rafael. The family hopes to move to the ranch full-time in the future.
I hear a squeal of delight, and turn to see Avery running toward her father–with mom Lisa in tow. He scoops her up, as she throws her arms around his neck. Her dangling feet are sporting miniature cowboy boots.
“Where’s Torpedo?” she chirps quizzically. “Torpedo,” it turns out, is the ranch mascot–a seven-year-old sheep bottle-fed at birth by Loren’s grandmother. “He’s actually kind of a celebrity around here”, Lisa tells me. Loren gestures to the field that stretches behind the main house, and assures Avery that we’ll find him on our tour.
Soon, more guests arrive–some traveling from as far away as Sacramento and the East Bay–all eager to tour the ranch and learn about the organic beef and sheep raised at Stemple Creek. We gather together overlooking the fields of bucolic black cows, as Loren enthusiastically shares details about their farm. He is proud to tell us that his family is committed to the highest standards for humane treatment of their animals. Their cattle, sheep, and pastures have all been certified organic through the Global Animal Partnership, an organization that rates farms based on ethical husbandry practices.
The family has also invested countless hours and dollars over the past decade to enhance environmental sustainability at the ranch. These enhancements include installing forty water troughs complete with solar pumps and a gravity flow tank, five miles of fence which protect sensitive riparian habitats in Stemple Creek, and 1,000+ trees, planted to help prevent erosion and provide nesting habitat for birds.
In addition, cattle graze in rotation on Stemple Creek’s one hundred pastures. Rotation, Loren explains, allows for the rest and recovery of vegetation in the fields while promoting biodiversity. The Poncias aim for a minimum of sixty days rest on each field before the animals rotate back. The cattle and sheep love moving to new pasture and seem to anticipate that rotation means fresh forage. “The cows know when it’s a rotation day”, Loren laughs. “They hear the four-wheeler coming and they run to the gate”. The grazing animals also provide natural fertilizer for the fields, allowing the farm to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels.
The Black Angus beef and sheep at Stemple Creek Ranch graze on a diet of organic, naturally occurring grass, clover, and shrubs. They live their lives from birth to harvest in the open pasture land on the farm with plenty of space to roam free and eat to their heart’s content. As a result, the finished meat from these cows is higher in vitamins E & C, beta-carotene, and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, than meat that comes from commercially raised cattle. They are never given growth stimulants, artificial hormones, or antibiotics.
As he tells us about the ranch, Loren leads us into one of their pastures to see the animals first hand. We stop several hundred feet away from a group of cows who pause their grazing to look at us with little more than passing interest. They seem content in this pastoral setting, where their quality of life is a clear priority.
Avery, who has been searching the field intently from her perch on Dad’s shoulders, suddenly spies the object of her affection. “Tor-peeee-dooo!” she calls, and we turn to see a small herd of sheep lying placidly in the grass a short distance away. As we approach, the animals rise and scatter, except for one lone figure who saunters toward our group. Torpedo, whose large girth seems proper for his name, mingles among us searching for a handout. Avery is clearly delighted we are finally meeting the ranch mascot.
We leave him to return to his flock, and make our way back to the main house for the finale of our tour: a BBQ tasting of Stemple Creek Ranch beef. Loren fires up the grill, as Lisa puts out homemade heirloom tomato salsa with chips. In record time, we are sampling cuts of top sirloin, london broil, short ribs, flap steak, and hamburger–cooked to perfection. The quality of the meat is clearly evident in the superb taste and texture, which rivals anything I have tasted before.
In keeping with their commitment to excellence, the Poncia’s livestock are humanely harvested in Petaluma at a USDA inspected facility. Once harvested, the meat is dry-aged for 10 to 14 days before being packaged for pick-up by individual customers, or sold to select stores.
Loren encourages interested customers to consider purchasing a quarter, half, or whole harvested animal directly from the ranch, splitting the cost and meat between friends and family. Their website at http://www.stemplecreek.com gives pricing for the various quantities of beef and lamb, along with a handy calculator for figuring out how much freezer space you’ll need to store your purchase. If that sounds like more than you want to bargain for, you can buy individual cuts of meat from their booth at the year-round Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market, every Sunday from 8:00AM-1:00PM. .
*HOT TIP OF THE WEEK: Sign up now for the annual Stemple Creek Ranch Tour and BBQ on Saturday, May 5th. Tours start at 11:00AM and 1:00PM with lunch served around noon. They will be grilling burgers and adding in some West-Marin style Cinco De Mayo activities. Tours are open to the public and free of charge but RSVP’S ARE REQUIRED! To RSVP, email the ranch at firstname.lastname@example.org with the number of children and adults in your party.
Lunch is $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 12 and under. If you plan on eating lunch, please pay in advance on their website at www.stemplecreek.com under “events” on the “shop” page.