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It’s all about the grass at Stemple Creek

More grass farmers than ranchers, the husband and wife team of Lisa and Loren Poncia do more than simply carrying on the Poncia family tradition of cattle ranching. Through equal parts art and science, they have flipped traditional ranching on its head, by concentrating on the stewardship of the land, first and foremost. Focusing on what is best for our pastoral farmlands, Stemple Creek Ranch takes pasture management beyond simply trying to grow cattle as fast as possible and instead concentrates on preserving the land around us. The byproduct of this effort is Stemple Creek Ranch’s delicious and nutritious beef, lamb, and coming soon, pork. It is no wonder restaurants take pride in listing Stemple Creek Ranch on their menus.

Admittedly, restaurant menus have grown bloated with ranch names ever since the 1990s. Restaurants wanted to attract discerning diners, but without any frame of reference, these monograms became meaningless. Even low-end diners and fast food chains started to pair ranches to their menus to try to jump on this bandwagon. One well-known monster-sized ranch even went so far as to insult common sensibility by throwing around catch phrases like “all natural,” “sustainable” and “humanely handled,” when even city-slickers knew this was not the case.

This type of misinformation, coupled with menus saturated with meaningless monikers, left conscientious consumers with a bad taste in their mouth. Even ethical eaters started to ignore these ranch signatures, figuring they were simply a marketing ploy, as commonplace and hollow as a Coca-Cola or Pepsi advertisement. Moreover, some former industry stalwarts grew so fast that quality suffered, which left consumers with little faith in ranch-branded menu items.

Nevertheless, Stemple Creek Ranch has such a well-deserved reputation for high quality beef and lamb that when their name started to appear in butcher shops and on restaurant menus, educated consumers actually took notice. However, this reputation did not come easy. The Poncias started small, but always knew better than to treat ranching as a hobby. The timing was perfect because Loren’s parents, Al and Kathy Poncia, were considering retirement anyway. They were amenable to selling their ranch, but that did not mean it would be easy going for Lisa and Loren. After studying Ag Business at Cal Poly, where the two met, Loren wanted to try some new techniques.

“First and foremost, we are grass farmers,” states Loren, as he kneels down and runs his hands through the grass, as if caressing one of his children. It is noon, and like clockwork, the coastal breeze has kicked up, gently bringing the pasture to life. The grasses shimmer as the Poncias guide a group of visitors to a choice hilltop with a view of the entire ranch. Offered a few times a year, tours wisely start with samples of the ranch’s barbecued short ribs. With this snack consumed, guests are not so distracted by the anticipation of the tour-ending barbecue, where they will snack on several flavorful cuts of steak and ground beef and lamb. Choice cuts of meat are also available for direct sale, which is how Stemple Creek Ranch first started servicing the community, before butcher shops and restaurants realized that aficionados were willing to search out the Poncia’s brand.

Loren continued to wax poetic about grasses, and how managing them properly means experimenting with different natural fertilizers, as well as “resting” up to 90 percent of the ranch’s pastures at any given time. Clearly this is more than a business and Loren’s roots as a Tomales local come through loud and clear. Unlike most feed lot cattle, Stemple Creek Ranch raises beef that grows at a slower rate. Instead of the normal 16-month aging, Stemple Creek Ranch waits until their cattle are 24-28 months old before harvesting. Loren points out to the captivated crowed that, “When I was young, I was lean; all muscle, no fat … But once I passed into my 40s I started to fatten up nicely.” He grins as he rubs his belly, “Same goes for cattle.” By giving their herd time to grow, the meat develops deep marbling, which when cooked properly, produces mouth-watering flavor.

In Stemple Creek Ranch, the Poncias have created a local food purveyor that we can all be proud to call our neighbor. But regardless of how popular they have become, Lisa and Loren are still down-home ranchers that have never lost sight of what is important. They set an example by properly caring for our land, not only ensuring our community’s agriculture heritage, but also benefiting Petaluma’s culinary reputation. Through countless hours studying breed stock and learning how to best manage their land, the Poncias have built a brand that stands at the pinnacle of the industry. Theirs is not a burger that you simply try by accident. Menus that boast Stemple Creek Ranch are sought out specifically because connoisseurs want to experience a great meal, based around a legendary local piece of meat. (Visit Houston Porter’s blog at http://rivertown.blogs.petaluma360.com.)

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