Marin’s Love Affair With Dairy

February 5, 2019

When someone says West Marin, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

The spectacular coastline and scenic beaches? Those idyllic rolling hills? Or how about the cows and calves dotting the picturesque oak woodlands and grazing in the lush pastures? If there’s anything that can be considered an iconic symbol of West Marin, it has to be the Happy Cows.

We all already know that these animals are deeply tied to MALT’s work to protect Marin’s farmlands forever. In fact, our very first easements, which we completed in 1983, continue to raise dairy heifers that spend their entire life in West Marin.

But did you know that dairy cows are also closely tied to the history of Marin County?


During the time of the Gold Rush, the dairy industry began to thrive in Marin, at one point providing a staggering one quarter of all of California’s butter. As of the 1850s, cows were still milked by hand twice a day which meant that most dairy operations kept between 10 and 15 cows.

In that era, San Francisco served as a major market for Marin’s dairy products, and to get their product to market ranchers employed a combination of horse-drawn wagons, flat-bottomed schooners, and railroads.

Then, Marin’s milk industry expanded even further with the invention of the milk bottle in 1884 and the establishments of marketing cooperatives.


And in 1980 MALT was founded, which has also contributed to the story of dairy in Marin. Over the last four decades, MALT has invested $86 million in land conservation in Marin county, funds that have been used by our partner farmers and ranchers to secure their futures in farming and invest in their businesses.

As an example, in 1994, the Straus Dairy Farm reinvested some of the funds it received when MALT purchased its development rights to convert its dairy into the first organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River. Straus helped create demand for organic milk across the county and the entire state, changing the course of Marin agriculture in the process.

Today, dairy continues to serve as a cornerstone in Marin’s agricultural economy, representing 39% of the county’s livestock and $87 million in crop value in 2017. We have seen growth in the organic milk industry right here in our backyard, and the thirty plus artisanal cheese makers are demonstrating a deepening market for dairy products.


However, Marin’s dairy industry faces difficult hurdles.

Since 1959, 32,000 acres of agricultural lands have been lost to development in Marin.

The number of dairy farms dropped from 200 in 1950 to fewer than 100 by 1972, and just 26 of Marin’s dairy farms remain in operation today.
A surplus of organic milk has led to a drop in prices for our local pasture-based dairies who have to compete with out-of- state and large-scale producers.

MALT is proud to be a part of the long history of dairying in Marin County and, through stewardship and innovation, is helping ensure its viability well into the future.

By protecting farms and ranches so they remain in agriculture forever, we’re safeguarding local food production and freeing up capital for farmers and ranchers so they can invest in their business and marketing to make farming and ranching profitable in an ever-changing economy.


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