When Lisa Poncia and her husband, Loren, first started dating, she made it clear that she wasn’t keen on living on the West Marin ranch where Loren grew up.
After all, it would be a stretch for a Jewish girl raised in the suburban San Fernando Valley to adapt to a rural lifestyle.
But living on a ranch is one thing, and helping to run a family-owned sustainable meat business is quite another. That was something Lisa could get behind. In a best-of-both-worlds arrangement, the couple live with their two children in Novato and run their business, Stemple Creek Ranch, in West Marin, where they raise cattle and lamb on about 3,000 acres.
The brand is small but known for its quality. The Poncias sell directly to consumers through their website and to smaller mom-and-pop butcher shops (for example The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, which happens to be owned by a couple who, like the Poncias, are Jewish-Italian-American.) They also sell to Berkeley Bowl, Good Earth Natural Foods in Marin and Oliver’s Markets throughout Sonoma County, as well as to local restaurants.
Loren Poncia is a fourth-generation rancher who grew up near tiny Valley Ford in West Marin. He and Lisa met in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (she says she was shocked to find hardly any Jewish students on campus.) She went on to law school; he went into pharmaceutical sales after majoring in agriculture and dairy science. After a few years, Loren began thinking he’d like to take over the family business and, in the process, transform it.
“He would drive over to the ranch some weekends and was on the board of the MALT and would help his dad on the ranch,” Lisa said, referring to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, started by Ellen Straus, matriarch of the Jewish dairy family. “Eventually, he realized that if he didn’t try, he might regret it.”
In 2005, they took over the operation from Loren’s parents, and he started making small changes to the business while continuing at his full-time job.
When they first started, they raised their cattle according to very broad “all natural” standards and sold them to a feedlot, a common practice among larger agribusinesses.
“When you do that, you get a report back. We later learned that 30 percent of them got sick,” said Lisa.
We realized we didn’t want to send our cattle to a feedlot.
Around the same time, they both read Michael Pollan’s bestselling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which examines modern food choices and discusses food-processing facilities where corn-fed cows become sick as they’re being fattened up for slaughter. That “was a defining moment,” Lisa said. “Our minds were blown. We realized we didn’t want to send our cattle to a feedlot, and we didn’t want to feed them corn.”
The next season, they held onto their cattle for an additional year (they’re often sold at 11 months) and fed them grass. They also began hosting free ranch tours and put up a basic website. People started buying cows from them, whole, half or quarter, and many told the couple it was the best meat they’d ever tasted.
A number of things have changed in the years since, one of which was a decision to keep their business more local. For several years Whole Foods was one of their buyers, and while that helped raise brand awareness, the Poncias agreed they preferred dealing with smaller operations where they knew their buyers.
A second change has been an increasing awareness of sustainability. To that end, the Poncias have participated in a 10-year scientific program with the Marin Carbon Project, which is studying ways to sequester carbon in soil for multiple benefits, including plant growth and water retention.
The couple had already introduced a few of the practices before joining the project, and now they have world-class scientists out to the ranch regularly.
“We have healthier pastures now than we did,” Lisa said. “We can absorb more water and grow more grasses for longer into the drought season. It’s better for the environment and for our business. It’s win-win.”
Loren quit his outside job in 2014 and began managing the family business full time. Lisa works part time, while maintaining her own law practice. She also serves on the MALT board.
“I asked if they were sure they wanted me,” said Lisa, who thought the fact that she was relatively new to the business and had come to it through marriage might disqualify her. “It was a real turning point for me and my personal journey in agriculture. I knew Ellen Straus before she passed, and she could not have been more thrilled that Loren married a Jewish girl, as it brought another one of us to West Marin.”
One of their ultimate goals, Lisa said, is to make sure the family ranch will be sustained for future generations. There are eight children in the Poncia extended family, which includes their own two kids. “Maybe none of them will be into it, which is fine, but we’re thrilled we can make local agriculture a viable option for the fifth generation of our family or others,” she said. “There are younger people who are getting into agriculture, and that’s really exciting for us. Who would have thunk it?”