A food producer’s life has never been glamorous, and in 21st-century America, it’s even less so. Rising costs of land, feed and fuel impinge on a bottom-line that was never very generous to begin with, and when you add the volatility of weather patterns, a lack of income security that a corporate job provides, along with the time it takes to nurture and harvest your crop (or animal) for market, you begin to realize that young farmers – the ones who go in to farm the way their grand or great-grandparents used to – are brave souls. While passion and determination are prerequisites, it helps too, to be born into a tradition of living off the land.
Loren Poncia is a fourth-generation cattle rancher raising grass-fed beef on his family’s ranch in the town of Tomales, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. The story begins in 1902, when his great-grandfather Angelo Poncia arrived from Northern Italy, bought a plot of land in 1933 and began raising cattle, pigs, chickens and vegetables, just as he had done in his hometown. His grandfather Alfred Poncia, took over the family farm in the 1940s and 1950s and saw the start of the industrialization and specialization of American agriculture. Under grandpa Alfred, the farm became a dairy and cattle ranch that supplied steers to feedlots, a practice that Loren’s dad, Alfred Loren Poncia, continued when he took over the reins in the mid-‘60s, specializing the ranch’s focus even further by relinquishing the dairy operation in 1989 to focus on beef production.
Much like his father and grandfather, Loren grew up on the ranch, helping out with general ranch work and learning all there was to learn about maintaining and caring for cattle. True to his roots, he bought 20 heifers in 1993 upon graduating from high school – a rancher’s version of building an asset base – and tended to his small herd on summer breaks from Cal Poly, where he was working towards a degree in Agribusiness and Dairy Science. By the time he graduated, consumers had started to wake up to the less desirable consequences of feedlot beef and were driving demand for local, sustainably-raised, pastured meat. After a short stint in corporate America he returned to the ranch in 2005, bought over his grandmother’s herd of 20 cattle and slowly built it up to 500 cattle today, growing Stemple Creek Ranch into the organic grass-fed beef business that currently exists, with a focus on preserving the harmony between grazing animals and the integrity of the land.
“All our beef is born and raised on our ranch, and only leave to be harvested,” said Loren. “They live out on the pasture from the time they’re born and feed on the rich blend of clover and native grasses. It’s my job to make sure that the 18 months they spend with us is as comfortable and as stress-free as possible.”
And it shows, not only in their meat (which has sold out every year since they started in 2008), but also in the leisurely, casual manner that different herds stroll from one pasture to the next. I had the opportunity to observe Loren rotate two herds on a breezy weekday in late-Spring, and there was a lot of enticing, whistling and honking (of his truck) to get the cows moving to where they needed to go.
“They’re too comfortable where they are,” Loren quipped, after throwing hay into the air for the umpteenth time to catch his cows’ attention. “They don’t realize that there’s more food to be found next door!”
Clearly, life is good for these cows. With the abundance of lush pasture, clear blue skies and cool breezes from the Pacific everyday, I don’t blame them for their tardiness either – it’s the perfect environment for grazing.