Get to know your food, farmers and the tools they use…

Farming has changed greatly over the last two generations, as Gene Ponica knows that first hand. He says, growing up on a dairy ranch was not fun for a kid. But the dairy cows are long gone these days. It was too expensive and challenging to upgrade all the old equipment to meet today’s strict dairy standards, so now the only cows on Poncia’s 700 acre West Marin ranch are beef cattle… and, that means, for the first time in his life, Gene has time to go fishing.

For the 2008 Annual Report for MALT (The Marin Agricultural Land Trust,) the theme was: Tools of the Trade. So I went to four different ranches and photographed tools old and new to help illustrate some of the changes that farming has gone through over the years.

These are some samples of where farming has come from…

I was told that in the “old days” ranchers were very resourceful… because they could not afford to buy new fancy equipment, they often had to build a lot of their tools, in order to make their chores a little easier. I saw lots of homemade tractors, and my favorite… the milking track shown in the photo below. These old carts ran on a track around the barn to distribute the hay, that dropped from the barn above, to the cows waiting to be milked in the barn below.

Then I saw some tools that were used in the “old days” and that are still going strong today… like The Straus Family Creamery’s organic milk bottling and washing machines. It was such a beautiful process to watch. And as a quick aside: Albert Straus is absolutely the nicest (extremely successful) business man I have ever met… all of his employees in the office and the factory clearly like and respect him. It is refreshing to know that a good man is behind a good product… and it makes me feel good to buy that beautiful milk bottle in the grocery store, even if it is more than my budget would like, because good quality products are not cheap.

And then I got to experience a modern milking industry in action… and I saw the process of cheese making from start to finish, at the Giacamini Ranch, where they make Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese.

Definitely no milking by hand here, because in order to keep up with their demand, they need to milk over 300 cows in 5 hours. And the secret to their rapid success… this handy little machine below…

I have spent many hours milking cows by hand… and I am really glad I had not seen this machine during that time period, because I didn’t fully understand how easy it could have been…. no spilled milk, or hours of hand cramping milking, in this super sterile barn.

Then all that milk ends up here… where the rest of the magic begins…

And the beautiful final products…. cheese…. and manure. The cheese is carefully packaged and shipped off to grocery stores across the US… and the manure is carefully collected, processed and diverted from the waterways… in order to protect our environment for the next generation of farmers and consumers.

My conclusion… get to know where your food comes from… how it is made and who is making it… and you will appreciate it all a whole lot more. Support your local organic farmers and cows.

Rug Maker Emma Webber

90 year old Rug Maker Emma Webber in her Petaluma studio. She first learned to hook and braid rugs from her mother in 1948. 60 years later she is still working on her rugs. She makes her braided rugs out of whatever material she can find. Every surface in her house is covered by her braided rugs and every wall proudly wears her ornate hooked rugs. She says she just can’t stop making them. She says most old people sit around and read, but Emma says she has read all she wants to read, so she makes her rugs instead.

Emma sells her rugs from her Petaluma home on 4th street and at Knitterly in downtown Petaluma. As I was leaving her house she handed me one of her business cards and said she wasn’t sure if she should have another 500 cards printed, because she doesn’t know if she’ll live long enough to pass them all out.

If you live in Petaluma, or anywhere close to Petaluma, and you are looking for an authentic beautiful gift that comes from a wonderful creative soul, then please visit Emma’s house and see for yourself. Also, her daughter, Laura, teaches classes on rug hooking in the same house… so you can dive in to the art of rug hooking as deep as you want to go.

I photographed Emma for a story, for the Petaluma Magazine, on where to buy local art for the holidays.

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