Remembering Al Poncia

September 11, 2023

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Alfred Loren Poncia (Al), who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on August 28. Our hearts go out to the entire Poncia family grieving from this loss and to everyone who was fortunate to call him a friend — our community won’t be the same without Al’s quick wit, radiant humor, and unwavering commitment to farming and ranching in West Marin. 

As one of the founding board members of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), Al played a pivotal role in establishing a culture of land conservation within Marin County’s agricultural community. His natural inclusivity and ability to work with a wide range of individuals, including contemporaries Ellen Straus and Phyllis Faber, helped galvanize local farmers, ranchers, and conservationists to safeguard this landscape from the threat of urban development. 

“Al was one of the early visionaries for MALT and his legacy is felt today in more than 55,700 acres of protected land. Marin County wouldn’t be the same without his early influence and steadfast belief in local farming, ranching, and conservation,” shared Lily Verdone, executive director of MALT.

Watch the video and hear some of Al’s insights in his final days. 

Al’s 18-year service as a board member of the Marin County Farm Bureau (including three years as president) was critical in the establishment of the farmland protection movement in West Marin. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of unprecedented change and urban pressure, including a countywide plan that proposed a housing development for 125,000 people along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. Al’s leadership at that time was central in safeguarding a 120-year legacy of local agriculture.

“Al was not afraid to break the mold, upset the apple cart, call for change,” shared Ralph Grossi, the first chair of MALT’s board of directors and longtime president of the American Farmland Trust. “In the early 70s, as one of the youngest members of the Marin County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, Al recognized the need for some new, younger leadership. He set the stage for a new generation of agriculturalists that emerged to lead the Farm Bureau for the next two decades.”

The roots of the Poncia family run deep within Marin County soils, beginning with Al’s grandparents, Angelo and Rachel Poncia. Immigrating from Italy in 1897, the couple began farming in West Marin before later settling in Fallon and founding the Fallon Creamery. The couple raised three sons and a daughter. The oldest, Alfred G Poncia, started his own dairy in 1933 on a nearby 268-acre ranch. Alfred G and his wife, Jennie, had two children, Al and his sister, Edwardeen.

“Al was not afraid to break the mold, upset the apple cart, call for change,” 

– Ralph Grossi

After attending Santa Rosa Junior College, Al returned home to support the family dairy and recognized early on the need to adapt and build a more economically and environmentally resilient business. Al was one of the first ranchers in the area to restore degraded creek habitat and protect sensitive wildlife species. His legacy of careful land stewardship continues today through his son Loren and daughter-in-law Lisa Poncia’s Stemple Creek Ranch — renowned for their environmental sustainability and innovative stewardship practices. 

“When MALT was just an idea, he was one of the first ranchers to step up in support, joining the Board and advocating for a future for the family farms and ranches of West Marin,” Ralph Grossi further shared. “His insights, energy, and unabashed enthusiasm for agriculture in Marin were critical to MALT’s successful early days. Those same qualities have also left him with a legacy of innovation that is expressing itself in the next generation of the Poncia family.”

To the people who knew him best, Al was, first and foremost, a family man. He and his wife, Cathie, first met in college and eventually raised a family together with four children — Melissa, Jennifer, Jessica, and Loren — along with eight cherished grandchildren. Our thoughts remain with the family having lost both Jessica and her husband, Bill Valentine, to cancer earlier this year.  

Over the years, Al earned numerous awards and recognitions, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Marin County Farm Bureau, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Excellence in Conservation Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Steward of the Land Award from the Marin Conservation League, as well as the Local Hero Award from the Bay Area’s Edible Communities. Al was also a champion in the educational spheres, having served as a board member for the Shoreline Unified School District in Tomales.

Beyond the awards, Al’s most profound impact lies in the transformed mindset of the farming and ranching community. Thanks to the tireless efforts of him and his contemporaries, Marin County has become a hub for sustainable agriculture, a region where farmers, environmentalists, and the community collaborate to create a healthier and more resilient food system. Al helped set the stage, ensuring this landscape will always be a place next generation farmers and ranchers can dig in and thrive.

In a world grappling with climate change, biodiversity loss, and food security issues, Al’s life and work serve as a guiding light. His dedication to community engagement and the well-being of the land stands as a testament to the power of individual and collective action. As Marin County evolves, Al’s legacy will undoubtedly continue to shape the region and inspire generations to come.

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Gifts in memory of Al can be made to MALT and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

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