The West Marin Way
By Marjean Curtis-Oakes
* Originally published in Marin County's weekly newspaper, The Pacific Sun
As early as the '60s, developers locked a lustful gaze on the lush, tree-studded stretches of agricultural land and expanses of seaside property that was West Marin. It was prime real estate that could be built out to entice ever more tourists and potential inhabitants wanting to breath in the fresh air and watch the sun set over unpolluted bays. "We could have ended up with a little Contra Costa or Orange County right here in West Marin." says Lila Purinton, former associate publisher at Mother Jones and now consultant to environmentally savvy companies. But Sun Valley mall didn't end up in Bolinas, blocks of squatty post-war look-a-likes never got planted in Point Reyes, and Chevron doesn't spill its waste water into Tomales Bay. Thanks to residents committed to keeping the area as pristine as possible, this part of the county that boasts over 60,000 acres of state and federal preserve land interspersed with the rolling hills of agriculture and small towns has avoided the rampant development that has gobbled up other fair sections of our country.
"The more beautiful it gets and stays," says Purinton, "the more people want to be here." That growth always comes with a price. But Purinton sees a common mindset in West Marin. In spite of the great diversity of the populace, the businesses and services established to support a growing population tend to adhere to a vision of sustainability. And whether a business makes goods to be distributed locally or around the world, there's a philosophical connection, if not a more intimate one, to other businesses in the area. Straus Family Creamery produces the milk that is made into cheese at Tomales Bay Foods. Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of Tomales Bay Foods not only teach ranchers how to make that Straus milk into cheese, but showcase a multitude of local agricultural products at their gourmet take-out location in downtown Point Reyes. One of the investors in Tomales Bay Foods also invests in The Wind Harvest Company. The Wind Harvest Company relies on the expertise of Lila Purinton to get the word out about their company. Lila Purinton is married to Peter Worsley, an organic grower who sells his produce to Tomales Bay Foods...
With resources declining, worldwide pollution rising, reliance on a global economy increasing, West Marin is pleased to be at ground zero for the sustainability movement. They hope to provide a road map for other communities wanting to set themselves on the same environmentally sound path.
Energy production is right at the top of any environmentalist's list of concerns. Purinton says that she has a goal of getting the entire community on wind power. "I don't know exactly how we're going to do it," she says, "but with George Wagner and The Wind Harvest Company right in our own backyard, maybe we have a fighting chance."
The Wind Harvest Company
"Seven years ago, Al Gore told the American Wind Energy Association that with existing technology, it would be possible to generate all of America's electricity using wind power," says George Wagner, co-founder of The Wind Harvest Company in Pt. Reyes.
Nobody in the wind energy business doubted this then, or doubts it now. But by the time Gore uttered those words, the US was sitting firmly on its hands when it came to promoting renewable energy sources.
Although wind power has been harnessed for hundreds of years, it was in the Jimmy Carter/Jerry Brown years that viable green energy development was encouraged. Proponents had a window of opportunity and the US became the leading producer and exporter of wind turbines. When Reagan and pals came to power, that window was slammed shut. Europe rapidly gained the lead in turbine production, many good US turbine companies went belly up, and investment funds dried up for those companies that managed to survive.
One survivor was The Wind Harvest Company. The artist Sam Francis launched the company 15 years ago with 1.3 million of his own money. "Francis was brilliant," says Wagner. "He had a strong environmental sense, understood aerodynamics, and, as an artist, was gripped by the image of turbines in the wind." Francis convinced inventor Robert Thomas, who was with the navy's wind program, and Wagner, then an attorney, to invest and come on board. Francis died in '94, but Thomas and Wagner have been quietly working on perhaps the most exciting turbines in wind power history and waiting for the day when the American climate would again favor renewables. Wagner says that day has finally arrived.
Wind power is the fastest growing energy source in the world he says, regions of Spain have gone from no wind energy to close to 25% wind energy in less than three years. And now that Gingrich, Livingston and company have lost control in Washington, maybe the US has a stab at success in the marketplace. "We now have bipartisan support," says Wagner. "With the next budget there's a good chance we'll see a wind energy tax credit."
What makes The Wind Harvest Company so competitive is that they're not competitive. Other turbines are of the horizontal-axis type and over 100 feet tall, they also must be spaced at a certain distance for aerodynamic reasons. Wind Harvest turbines are only 44 feet tall and of a vertical-axis type. Two or three of these smaller turbines can be erected around the taller ones and not compete for wind. This means that the energy output of a wind farm is dramatically increased without adding acreage or roads.
Wagner says that the company fully expects to be successful this time around. But having the best product around isn't enough. "You need someone with the same environmental commitment to market your product," says Wagner, "otherwise they don't really get it and they have no passion for it." Lila Puritan of Puritan Communications heads up Wagner's marketing efforts. She recently asked Michael Straus to join the team. Straus, himself, is the founder of Straus Communications, another marketing concern that works only with organizations who adhere to sound environmental practices.
"There are a lot of superior organic and environmentally sound products being produced," says Michael Straus, founder of Straus Communications. "If they were marketed more creatively, they could be amazingly successful."
Straus knows firsthand the quandary of having a great product but no market eager to snap it up. His family's own West Marin business, the Straus Family Creamery (Pacific Sun, July 20, 1994) made a couple of dramatic moves that could have proven fatal if it had not been for a little creative marketing.
After 48 years in the dairy business, they took their dairy 100% organic. They wanted to guarantee customers a local supply of milk from cows raised on pristine land not treated with harmful chemicals. They also guaranteed that those cows would not be treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. And to further adhere to their strong environmental philosophy, the Strauses started bottling the milk in reusable bottles. Son Michael took on the challenge of marketing this old-fashioned idea whose time had come again. He says that the switch to organic gained overwhelming public support and Straus products are now available in stores throughout Northern California and used in some of the area's finest restaurants like Cafe Marmalade in Ross and Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Last June, Straus left the dairy to start his own business, Straus Communications. He promotes only businesses, like Wind Harvest, that help ensure an environmentally sound future. If Straus speaks with enthusiasm about the difference that a switch to wind power will make to the health of the planet, he gets positively ecstatic when talking about progressive agriculture.
His company, which acts as a clearinghouse for information on progressive agriculture, will soon make it easy to follow the agricultural money trail. Since most people are very disconnected from their food source, they're clueless about where their money ends up when they make their food purchases. By May, his web site will feature a family tree of the food industry. Consumers can then decide if they want to shell out $1.99 for a tin of Altoid mints if that money ultimately makes its way back to Phillip Morris.
It's not possible or practical to manufacture everything close to home. But today, when food safety and the nutritional value of food harvested too early and shipped too far, are in question, having a local food supply makes a lot more sense. Straus wants to make that a reality. To research the possibilities, he just participated in the first International Organic Marketing Conference sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He traveled in both Eastern and Western Europe looking at forms of sustainable agriculture and different methods of promoting it that might translate well to Marin and Sonoma County businesses. Straus incorporates agricultural ecotourism, on-farm markets and processing, as well as land conservation techniques into the farming equation. The goal is to make farms economically viable while providing a regional food supply.
Local agriculture is just more responsible and more accountable than a supplier that might be thousands of miles away says Straus. "I use food marketing to build those fresh connections between the urban and rural communities," he says. "But some may want that local food supply as close as their front steps, and that's part of what permaculture is about. The Starks are the ones to talk to about permaculture. "
Permaculture Institute of Northern California
"In 1991 I took a Permaculture course in Oregon," says Penny Livingston-Stark. "It changed my life."
Livingston-Stark had been working as a landscaper and gardener for many years when she decided she wanted to do more than create beautiful gardens for their owners to admire. She wanted to involve people in their landscapes, to get them working with nature instead of against it. Permaculture gave her a way to do that. Adding food crops to the garden acts as a magnet she says. But it's not just homegrown food that a permaculture living environment can bring to the participants. The workshops and intensive courses that Livingston-Stark and her husband, James Stark, teach at the institute are about creating small ecosystems that foster mutually beneficial relationships with the natural world. Those systems take into account everything from the community economy and energy efficiency to food and fiber production and habitat restoration.
Livingston-Stark explains that often people get into permaculture thinking they're entering a world of deprivation. What they find is that anything they have to give up, they generally don't miss. The end result is always a richer and more abundant life.
That richer life is a shared vision of the community says Livingston-Stark and their permaculture institute is part of the picture. When every business and livelihood get tailored to a sustainable form, the community can provide a map for other communities she says. The Starks involvement reaches well beyond the Permaculture Institute. The Tomales Bay Community Forum, Watershed Radio, and the Waste free 2000 project are all endeavors that compete for the Starks' attention. One of the most viable and successful West Marin projects, The West Marin Growers' Group, saw its genesis at the Starks' kitchen table.
The West Marin Growers' Group
"About four years ago, a group of us got together and started the West Marin Growers' Group, "says organic grower, Peter Worsley. "We wanted to prove that small scale local agriculture was viable and to foster our local growers."
That vision soon came to fruition in the form of a farmers' market, but not just any farmer's market. Every Saturday between nine and noon at Toby's Feed Barn on Main Street in Pt. Reyes, the community comes out in force to socialize and to buy organic produce that must be grown within Marin County. No other farmers' market limits its growers to such a strict geographical area. Worsley says that the limitation really connects consumers with those who locally produce their food. No longer is the grower anonymous, living hundreds or thousands of miles away, hiding behind distributors and a big corporate logo. If the buyer wants to know when the grower picked the Romano beans or what he might have ripening for the following week's market, all that buyer needs to do is ask.
Worsley, himself, sells everything from raspberries to beans at not only the farmers' market, but to restaurants like the well-known Tomales Bay Foods (Pacific Sun, October 15, 1997). He grows all of his produce on half an acre that he leases from dairy ranchers Steve and Sharon Doughty. "Part of the Marin Growers' Groups reason for being is to demonstrate to local ranchers that there are innovative, alternative uses for their land," says Worsley. "Steve is an innovative guy - he grows wine grapes on the ranch too, not a common thing for our area."
Another project spearheaded by the Marin Grower' Group is scheduled to make its debut mid-summer -- the Marin Organic label. The project got a financial kick-off from the Marin Community Foundation and has the support of the Marin Department of Agriculture which will administer the program. The organic label should further promote the identity of the local growers and hold them not only to the strict guidelines of organic growing, but encourage them to practice water conservation and engage in fair employment practices as well.
"But agriculture has a couple of components," says Worsley. "Both food and fiber are products of the land. And while we're finding that local and organic is the way for us to minimize environmental impact with food production, you really should talk to Christine Neilson at Coyuchi to see how her concept of fiber production fits into the puzzle."
Coyuchi Organic Cotton Bedding
"Hold a set of queen-size sheets in your hands," says Christine Neilson, owner of Coyuchi, "they weigh about four pounds. To make those sheets from conventionally grown cotton requires about one and a quarter pound of agricultural chemicals --pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers". Cotton is the heaviest sprayed field crop in the world. Twenty-five percent of global pesticides are sprayed on cotton each year, though it is grown on only 3% of the world's arable land. Even with increased awareness of the deleterious effects of pesticide use, there was an increase of 41% in the chemicals used on cotton in California between 1991 and 95. It's something to consider as you snuggle between two sheets and perhaps a cotton comforter cover each night. It's something that Nielson considered when deciding how best to meld her love of weaving and fabrics and her commitment to organic agriculture. But it wasn't a snap decision or and easy process.
Nielson has been a weaver since 1970. In 1987 she was invited to Mexico to work in community development projects related to textiles. She taught village women how to weave on floor looms and dye wool using plant and other natural materials.
During the 3 years she was involved in non-profit activities in Mexico, Nielson became friends with Sally Fox, the originator of FoxFibre, the first industrially spinable naturally colored cotton. From Sally, Christine learned about the impact of conventional cotton growing on the environment and the feasibility of growing it organically. Together, they helped a group of farmers in the village of Xochistlahuaca to cultivate their naturally-occurring brown cotton, coyuchi, in this way.
By this time, the organic and naturally colored cotton possibilities were growing. Large companies such as Levi Straus and Esprit were using them, and Nielson saw the opportunity to start a business whose purpose would be to create beautiful cotton fabrics with virtually no environmental impact. So Coyuchi was born. Five years later, it was time to take the idea into finished products. Bedding was a "natural", since people want the cleanest fiber for the most intimate use, (sleeping), and sheets use a lot of it.
Finding a mill that could produce fine thread count, wide-width sheeting fabric using organic cotton, was a challenge that led, ironically, to a developing country, India. There the company found a facility with state-of-the-art equipment and the willingness to become involved in a new and exciting product. Besides the mill, Nielson was able to find cotton grown organically by a cooperative farmers' group. This union was a godsend for the farmers too, who would be paid a premium price for organic cotton and at the same time avoid the health risks associated with heavy pesticide use.
The bedding made its debut at the New York Home Textile Show in April of 1998. As Neilson puts it, "we had crashed through the granola barrier." They offer a product that is not just environ-mentally sound, but one that has been enthusiastically accepted by those who also care about great styling and superb quality as well. Sheets and ---- are now available in damask and percale and Neilson is working on organic flannel and satine. Coyuchi products are available through the Harmony Farms and Seventh Generation catalogs, Earthsake stores in the Bay Area and 70 other stores around the country.
In the '60s, says Neilson, while some joined the Peace Corps and demonstrated against Vietnam she was in her garden, baking bread, making yogurt, and weaving with naturally dyed yarns. Her activism drew on those skills, but came later, and now has landed her in what seems to be a sort of 'revolutionary business' trying to do well and the same time do good. "I want to change the world," she says, "one bed at a time."
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