“Ellen Straus”: a Commentary

KQED - California Report
By Jordan Fisher-Smith

This week I received the news that Ellen Straus had died.

In the spring of the year I turned eighteen my own mother died and Ellen and her husband Bill sent for me, and for some weeks I was a ranch hand at their dairy on the great sweep of prairie hills along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay north of San Francisco. There was work and a soft bed, and at the big meals Ellen put out at the kitchen table the talk was of the condition of the herd and fences, and the struggle to keep farming in west Marin.

Dairy farmers were faced on the one hand with the skyrocketing value of their land; on the other with marginal profitability between costs and long hours and the price of milk. One by one, farms went under. Ellen worried. She loved her way of life, those hills, and the little fingers of laurel woods following the creeks down to the bay, where the wind sculpted the trees into sinuous curves.

By the nineteen-sixties and seventies Ellen and Bill had come out in support of the National Parks’ acquisition of Point Reyes and worked for sixty-acre minimum county zoning, to discourage subdivision of the farms. Some neighbors were suspicious of the government and felt the Strauses were gutting their retirement plans. But Ellen understood that at certain points farmers had to see their land as a financial asset-when farms passed from one generation to the next incurring inheritance taxes; when partners needed to buy each other out; when new barns or machinery were required to stay in business. She just wasn’t sure yet what to do about it.

In 1980, Ellen and her friend Phyllis Faber started what is believed to be the first land trust in the nation specifically designed to keep farms in business, using money from private donors to buy development rights in exchange for an infusion of cash to farmers. Today the Marin Agricultural Land Trust holds conservation easements on 32,000 acres of 47 ranches.

Ellen knew the difference between things that last and temporary things. Acrimony with neighbors from the brave positions she took mellowed with time. The red carpet in her 1864 farmhouse is the same as when I stayed there, clean but worn. On it she raised four exemplary sons and daughters who carry on her work. Today the Straus Creamery produces organic dairy products out of a sparkling new plant, and the landscape around it looks as it did when I was a boy.

We have measured civilization in construction-from the Ziggurat of Ur and the great pyramids to the World Trade Center. But these things don’t last forever, and now the measure of our wisdom will be in the things we don’t build, the spaces between, the things we allow to survive. In a recent five-year period, eighty-two thousand acres of California farms went under concrete. Ellen is absent from the kitchen table, as if, as so often happened, she has been called to testify at some meeting. At such times she would say, hurrying out the door, “The environment calls…” Now the call is to us-to preserve rural landscapes and support human life-ways that allow other lives.

After working as a ranch-hand Jordan Fisher-Smith grew up to be a park ranger. His book on the American River will be published by Houghton Mifflin in the spring of 2004. He writes from the Sierra Nevada.

Jordan Fisher-Smith
KQED California Report