McIsaac Ranch, Tomales
219 acres MALT-protected since 1991
On a warm late-summer morning Jessica McIsaac greets us and motions to a grey trailer. "We’ll feed the chickens in a minute," she says over her shoulder, "but I wanted to show you something first." As she walks us toward the trailer she fires off a quick history of the ranch. Her husband, Neil III, is a fifth-generation Marin rancher. He runs the Neil McIsaac and Son dairy ranch with his father, Neil Jr. In 1991, Neil Jr. sold MALT its first conservation easement on a dairy.
We arrive at the trailer where Jessica unlocks and swings open the door and we are met with a rush of cool air that offers welcome relief from the heat of the mid-morning sun. "Welcome to my fodder trailer," she beams.
Inside are rows and rows of bright green grass that contrast sharply with the dry, dune-colored fields beyond. Using hydroponic technology and grow lights, Jessica grows flats of sprouted, organic malting barley as a supplemental feed, or "fodder," for her flock of chickens. In just six short days, rotated trays of barley are transformed from tiny seeds to nourishing grass grown a few inches high, which double in size on the last day. Jessica is convinced that supplementing the hens’ diet through West Marin’s dry months with bright green barley grass gives their eggs a superior deep yellow color and rich taste.
Planning for a brighter Future
The birth of their twin boys in 2010 was a turning point for Jessica and Neil. "As soon as we brought the boys home," said Jessica, "we started thinking about ways we could do things better for our kids." Looking around Jessica and Neil saw that the dairies that were really thriving in Marin had started producing organic milk. After lengthy conversations around the kitchen table, the family decided to convert the dairy to organic, and in 2011 they began the process.
The decision to convert a dairy to organic is seldom an easy one. The costs of converting a herd from conventional to organic and making improvements to the land to provide pasture for grazing are significant. But the changes were worth it. "Fewer and fewer people want conventional milk anymore," said Jessica. "People will pay more for organic milk. Period." Their herd is now 95% organic, and with the higher price they are earning for their milk, the family’s future feels much more secure.
Jessica, however, continued looking for ways to build on their success.
In 2011 Jessica and Neil bought 500 "pullets" (baby female chickens) and within a few months a new egg business was born. Since then, the flock has grown to 6,000 hens. Jessica sells her eggs, plus those of four other local farmers, at Northern California Whole Foods Markets under her own Pasture Fresh Eggs label. Her eggs are all-organic and "pasture raised," which means the chickens are never locked inside or in a cement yard (whereas "free range" chickens may be), but spend all their time "on the field" where they are free to do what chickens do best: roam, peck, scratch and take dirt baths.
"The chickens turned out to be a really great business--even better than we dreamed," said Jessica. "We did this all for the kids."
The couple hopes that diversification will keep their kids in agriculture for a long time. It's a good thing, because the boys love working on the ranch. "The twins are in preschool now, and they love going to school--but as soon as I pick them up, they say ‘Mommy, I work.’ And when we get home they scramble out of the car as fast as they can and run to catch up with their dad."
Jessica stops and looks out over the family’s flock of hens and smiles, "There’s just no stopping them now."
Where to Find McIsaac Products
Neil and Jessica’s eggs can be found at all Northern California Whole Foods Markets under the Pasture Fresh Eggs label.
Neil McIsaac and Son dairy is part of the Clover-Stornetta family and their organic milk can be found in stores throughout the Bay Area.