Toolin’ Around Town: Loren Poncia, generations of local farming

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Autumn may be the ideal time to enjoy the natural beauty of our nearby coastal region. The ocean warms and the central valley cools, resulting in fogless blue skies. Scenic, windswept rolling hills, extending toward the Pacific Ocean, form an indistinguishable boundary. To an observer, the coastal-influenced countryside of West Marin and Sonoma counties seldom changes. Nineteenth and 20th-century ranch houses and rustic barns complement the landscape.

Although the scenery appears unchanged, modern ranching practices and science-based carbon neutral soil management incorporated by visionary ranchers Loren and Lisa Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch bear little resemblance to those observed by Loren’s great-grandfather. An Italian immigrant, Angelo “Pa Nono” Poncia, began milking cows in the Fallon area in 1902. Nine years later, he bought a 440-acre dairy and became a partner in the Fallon Creamery.

Angelo and his wife, Rachel raised four sons. The oldest, Alfred “Guido” Poncia, started his own dairy in 1933 on 270 adjacent acres. Guido and his wife, Jennie, had two children, Al and his sister, Edwardeen.

“Beginning with my great-grandfather, my family has put their backs into everything they’ve done,” said friendly, self-assured fourth-generation Loren Poncia, revealing the “super-positive attitude” he credits to his mother, Cathie. “In many ways, it was less difficult back then. Today, you can’t just work hard and make a living. It’s imperative to make products that customers want. We’re looking to create opportunities.”

After partnering with his parents, Al Poncia became instrumental in founding Marin Agricultural Land Trust, established by ranchers and environmentalists to protect the future of farming in Marin County. A West Marin pioneer in conservation and environmental stewardship, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for 50-plus years in agriculture by the Marin County Farm Bureau. In 2002, he received the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Excellence in Conservation Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Continuing that legacy of stewardship, Loren and Lisa Poncia work to foster optimal soil health that generates plentiful organic foraging for their premium grass-fed and finished beef and lamb enterprise. If everything goes according to plan, their fields and pastures will look as unspoiled 100 years from now as they do today.

“My parents never pressured me about following them into dairying, but it was more or less understood that I’d take over some day,” said Poncia, a 1993 Tomales High School graduate. “Until my junior year at Cal Poly, I thought I’d be coming back to the ranch, but instead I became a veterinary pharmaceuticals salesman.

“About 15 years ago I approached my wife with a plan to return home and raise cattle,” he continues. “I explained to her how the cows would pay for themselves. We presented the plan to my parents and we worked out the details.”

Their original plans called for raising cattle in conventional fashion, but after reading Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the Poncias chose to start raising ultra-high-quality meat for the Bay Area, joining a trend highlighting gourmet artisanal foods and upscale culinary delights. Named after the creek that flows through their property, Stemple Creek Ranch became operational in 2009, selling beef, lamb and pork products directly to customers.

The Poncias, who’ve carved a tasty niche in the farm-to-table movement, were among the early practitioners of super-progressive ranching methods, constructing over five miles of fencing to protect Stemple Creek and planting more than 10,000 trees along its banks, creating wildlife habitat and nesting for raptors, while slowing erosion and keeping the water cool. More than 40 water troughs, fed by solar-powered pumps and underground pipes, are in the pastures. Grasses, including an abundance of chicory and other forbs, are harvested and shaped into windrows to provide nutrition.

“This is very productive pasture land. One of our biggest challenges is we don’t have enough grass,” said Poncia, who was named Outstanding North Bay Rancher of the Year at the 2013 Sonoma County Fair. “I rent pastures all over the place. We have to generate more revenue from the land. That’s why we’re doing educational events. The more people that come to the ranch the more our business grows.”

In 2013, Stemple Creek Ranch acquired the 210-acre Burbank ranch which, along with valuable pastureland, included the former Shoreline Acres preschool attended by Poncia and his sisters. Available for private events, the property offers picturesque views, a renovated historic barn, restored cabins and a hilltop eucalyptus grove.

Looking to the future, Loren’s sisters, Jessica Valentine and Melissa Williams, are growing potatoes and making preparations to produce vodka under the Poncia Spirits label.

“We’re very proud of the products we produce,” Poncia said. “We are so blessed to live in an area with so much high quality food. We’re the lifeblood of the agricultural community. If we want this business to continue on to the fifth generation, we have to be successful. Our future depends on it.”

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. You can reach him at harlan@sonic.net)

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