5 Life Wisdoms from MALT’s Cofounder, Ellen Straus

September 29, 2022

Vivien Straus, daughter of MALT cofounder Ellen Straus, shares five insights into her mom’s guiding life principles, ingredients for success in any endeavor.


They’re so wise and insightful. If you’re lucky, they share their secrets.

My Mom, Ellen Straus, who co-founded MALT with Phyllis Faber back in 1980, died 20 years ago. If she were around today, she’d be giddy — not only because we have a woman at the helm of MALT for the first time (which is very exciting) but also because MALT has protected so much agricultural land over these last two decades. Then, after delighting in MALT’s accomplishments, Mom, with her broad, open smile, would say, “There’s more to do. Let’s go do it!” 

Mom’s positivity and optimism went a long way to getting things done. I continue to be inspired by her inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and fearless determination. I thought I’d share a few of the guiding principles that were the core of her success:

Ellen Straus laughing in the kitchen - MALT
Life was always a joy for Mom. She and my father were great pals.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Mom had no fear. Or if she did, she hid it well. I believe the kernel of MALT was sparked by finding out that someone wanted to build an oversized home in the middle of a ranch, potentially setting a precedent that would eventually kill our local agriculture.

Would a land trust work? What about one focused solely on agricultural lands? It had never been done before, but…could it work? How would it work? There wasn’t any precedent, but sometimes you need to take the leap into the unknown in order to find solutions.

Mom was one of the first to try growing Shiitake mushrooms on sawdust logs. She was always up for a challenge.

4. Listen, Just Listen! 

Phyllis and Mom met with a lot of people: They listened to the rancher’s concerns, many of which included fears that agriculture had no future in Marin. And as they listened deeply, they learned about possibilities and opportunities.

They asked experts in land conservation and learned about systemic problems and emerging models for solutions. They sought out new ideas and potential collaborators, and discovered experiences, knowledge and wisdom throughout the ranching, environmental and policy communities. If we listen, we learn.

It’s okay to be different. Here’s Mom making her weekly challah; we were Jews in a Christian community.

3. Learn from One Another, Even Those You Disagree With

My mom was one of those people who waited until the end of meetings to speak up. First she’d listen to everyone’s ideas, and discover where the conflicts lay.

She knew that we all come from different perspectives; but that finding common ground was key to a successful collaboration. Ideas beget even better ideas, and while we may not always agree on details, if we care about our community, that bond will help us come together.

Mom and Dad soon after they got married, starting a partnership that lasted 52 years.

2. Speak Up

After my parents died, I went through their over-stuffed attic — and there, buried between collections of letters from the 1800s, boxes of ancient junk mail (stuffed away to make the house look cleaner), and childhood knick-knacks – I stumbled up numerous speeches and letters Mom had written about land protection, environmental protection and community issues.

Mom participated in so many organizations that there was rarely a family dinner not interrupted by phone calls from, as Dad would say, ‘the environment.” There wasn’t a County meeting she didn’t attend, nor a community group she didn’t support.

After losing so many family members in the Holocaust, Mom was determined never to stand by silently, without taking action. “I was kicked out of one place I loved. I will not be kicked out again.” This was a mantra that drove her to never give up and to continue being a strong voice for agriculture and land protection.

Mom and I (Vivien Straus) excited about helping Straus Family Creamery grow and flourish.

1. Be a “Yes” Person

For Mom, nothing was impossible. You just had to try because, well, life is short. And there are so many exciting and important things to do. In my early twenties, I told her that I wanted to move to New York. And she said, “Yes. Sounds like fun. Do it!” A neighbor in Tomales talked to her about a business idea he had. She told him, “Wonderful! I believe in you!”

Another neighbor asked her if she’d like to go fishing on Tomales Bay (which she’d never done)…she was so excited. I found two photos of her on the boat: one of her beaming, and another with her eyes closed, fast asleep. While “doing” can be tiring, it never slowed her down, and she always said yes to trying new things and exploring new ideas.

I’ve just written a new show about my mother and some of the formative life experiences that made her the person who ended up co-creating MALT. After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everybody will be performed on our ranch starting October 21st, where many of Mom’s delightful and fun experiments were hatched. The show is funny, sad and occasionally ridiculous. Come enjoy the ranch! Mom would be thrilled to share our beautiful farm on Tomales Bay, a home which she loved dearly, on the land which helped save her, and which she then, in turn, helped save.

About the Author:

Vivien Straus grew up on and now manages Straus Home Ranch in Marshall. She is also a writer/performer on film, tv and stage. She created and runs the California Cheese Trail, and serves on the board of MALT.

Barn siding- MALT

After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone”

The Rollicking Tale of Ellen Straus, Dairy Godmother
Written & Performed by Vivien Straus

More stories like this:

Two women stand at the entrance to a barn with their arms around each other's shoulders.

Introducing MALT’s New Advisory Committee

January 30, 2024

Last fall MALT formed an Advisory Committee to connect to our community and strengthen our organization.

Read More

Thank You for a Year of Collective Accomplishments in 2023

November 13, 2023

From all of us at MALT, thank you for your ongoing support throughout this last year. Here are the highlights from 2023.

Read More

We Ask, We Listen: MALT Supporter Survey Results

September 18, 2023

Earlier this year, MALT’s broader community was asked to give us input. Here’s what nearly 600 of you thought.

Read More