Loren & Lisa Poncia are very proud of their family farm ... and they have every right to be.
The Poncias, who live in Novato, 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 a dairy on the ranch until 1989, when the focus shifted to raising free-range grass fed beef and sheep.
I recently had the pleasure of attending one of their free Saturday farm tours, and spent three hours learning a lot about the practice of raising sustainably farmed, ethically treated animals for consumption. It was definitely time well spent.
The 40-minute drive out to the ranch from Novato 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 a.m. farm tour, and am met by Loren Poncia. He is an affable guy with a warm smile and 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 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Avery. He hopes she will one day inherit the legacy, becoming the fifth generation of Poncias to call the farm her home. For now, Loren, Lisa, & Avery commute to the farm from Novato, a compromise they make 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 tiny cowboy boots.
"Where's Torpedo"? she chirps quizzically. "Torpedo" it turns out, is the ranch mascot, a 7-year-old sheep who was bottle-fed at birth by Loren's grandmother. "He's actually kind of a celebrity around here," Lisa tells me, noting the sheep has been featured in the work of several artists in the Marin Agricultural Land Trust's annual "Ranches and Rolling Hills" gallery show. Loren gestures to the field that stretches behind the main house and assures Avery that we'll find him on our tour.
Other guests have now arrived — some traveling from as far away as Sacramento and the East Bay — all eager to learn about the organic beef and sheep raised on the ranch. 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 the installation of forty water troughs supplied by solar pumps and a gravity flow tank, five miles of fence which protect sensitive riparian habitats in Stemple Creek, and planting 1,000-plus trees which help prevent erosion and provide nesting habitat for birds.
The Poncias also practice rotational grazing on their 100 pastures. Rotation, Loren explains, allows for the rest and recovery of vegetation in the fields, while promoting biodiversity. They aim to allow each field at least 60 days of rest before the animals rotate back onto it. The animals 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 that would otherwise be used to truck in additional feed.
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, Loren notes, the finished meat from their cows is higher in vitamins E & C, beta-carotene, and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, than meat that comes from commercially raised cattle. Their animals are never given growth stimulants, artificial hormones or antibiotics.
In keeping with their commitment to excellence, the Poncia's animals 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 at select stores and farmers markets. Loren encourages interested customers to purchase a quarter, half or whole harvested animal directly from the ranch, splitting the cost and meat between friends and family. Their website at 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, they also offer individual cuts of meat for sale.
As we listen intently, 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 appear content in this open 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 girth seems appropriate 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 barbecue 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 final proof of the quality of their product is evident in the superb taste and texture of the meat.
I ask Loren if he has any favorite seasonings for his beef, and he replies that a simple dusting of salt, ground pepper, garlic powder and olive oil are perfect for complimenting the natural flavor of the meat. I'd have to agree!
I purchase three beautiful top sirloin steaks for our family dinner that evening. I can feel good about serving this beef to my family, knowing first hand where it has come from, and supporting the rancher who works hard to bring quality meat to my table.
Stemple Creek Ranch beef and lamb is available for purchase at their booth at the Marin County Civic Center Farmers Market, every Sunday from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. You can also purchase through select local retailers (contact them for the most current retailer information) or order from their website.
Sign up for their next free Ranch Tour by calling 415-883-8253 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.