Beyond Free Range: Stemple Creek Ranch’s Attention to Soil

Beyond Free Range: Stemple Creek Ranch’s Attention to Soil

Salty air rolling in from the Pacific adds a certain quality to the grass at Stemple Creek Ranch, which sits just five miles away from the Northern California coast near the town of Tomales. On a recent visit to the ranch, a few of us at Frog Hollow got to experience that little something extra that gives their 100% grass-fed beef its terroir. Loren Poncia, a fourth generation rancher, is atune to many of these kinds of subtleties while managing 1,000+ acres of pastureland. A key ingredient to having happy cows, it turns out, is cultivating happy grass.

Stemple Creek Ranch hills just getting green near Tomales, California

“You gotta give the grass some time and space to rest, recover, and photosynthesize,” says Loren. “It’s all about how you treat the pastures in the wintertime that affects how the grass grows in the springtime.” In the fall and winter, the rolling hills are bright with lush green grass rich in protein and heavy with water. In the springtime when the hills are golden, the dry grass boasts high sugar and nutrient levels, even more so once the seeds start coming in. This cycle makes up a nutritious, well-balanced diet for Loren’s herd. “It’s like me going through the salad bar and getting lettuce and cheese,” he says. “Plus bacon bits and other high calorie stuff. We want the cows to have full access to the salad bar so they can gain the most pounds the fastest.”

The cows don’t need corn, soy, or other grains to supplement. The grass can actually supply all the nutrients they need. That’s no accident. Loren pays close attention. He even measures the brix (sugar) level of the grass, like we do for our fruit! That way, he can make calculated decisions about which pastures need a little added care. “The grass is at 3-4 brix level now and high in protein,” says Loren when we visited at the end of October. “In the spring it’s high in sugar, brixing at 10-20.” For context, the average brix level for our peaches is 14! Using the brix data as a guide, Loren applies fish emulsion on the soil to increase carbon storing capacity and adds compost to help with fertility. “We do whatever we can afford to do for soil health,” he tells us.

When there’s plenty of grass to graze, Loren puts the cattle on a few pastures at a time (rather than everywhere at once) and rotates them. He tries to minimize having animals graze too much while the grass is sprouting. Then, as the herd grazes, the cows conveniently leave behind natural fertilizer, cycling that carbon right back into the ground where it came from. Sequestering carbon in the soil helps retain moisture and nutrients, which inevitably makes the natural forage more abundant. Loren helps this process along by making and applying compost to the pastures whose fertility needs it. An individual pasture’s fertility level depends on its past management and biodiversity, among many other factors. Loren says he probably applies about 500 tons of compost a year in total, or 6 tons per acre. He loves experimenting and trying new things when it comes to improving soil health. With partners like the Marin Carbon Project and compost consultants from all over the world who are interested in what he’s doing, Loren has access to some pretty remarkable experts. But as he digs his hands into his compost to show us the components, it’s clear how much of a personal interest he takes in the science behind it all. He’s an expert in his own right and a great tour guide too, with a natural ability for taking complex scientific concepts and weaving them into metaphors that are easy to understand—much like Farmer Al!

As we walk around the property, Loren takes us by their barn and event space, where he shows us the ranch’s brand carved in the doors by his father decades before. Since taking over the operation, Loren has added his own initials to it, a blending of generations, old and new.

Loren shows Lael of Frog Hollow the Stemple Creek Ranch brand carved into the barn

Loren runs the ranch with his wife Lisa now. Their daughters Avery and Julianna, along with their cousins, will be the fifth generation of their family to steward it. It’s clear that he keeps this future at the forefront of his mind with all that they do. To be able to continue to produce on this land for generations means preserving wildlife habitat, natural watersheds, and regenerating the soil now. The Stemple Creek Ranch team sure is putting in the work.

On our way out, we stop by the Berkshire pigs, who we find foraging in a beautiful Eucalyptus forest overlooking the rest of the ranch. They eat organic, non-gmo grains, as well as grubs and wild forage. And they have plenty of room to socialize. “It’s a pig pen that doesn’t smell like pigs,” says Loren. And it’s true. At Stemple Creek, it’s just fresh air and beautiful green sprawling hills as far as the eye can see.

We are pleased to partner with like minded farms to bring you some of the best food in the Bay Area. You’ll find Stemple Creek’s pork and beef in our online selection.

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