When Bob Berner drives away from Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) on his red BMW motorcycle, he will be able to say that he helped protect half of the farm- and ranchland in West Marin since he started as executive director 28 years ago. He’s already protected 44,100 acres, or nearly 45 percent of Marin’s farmland. This summer MALT launched a campaign to raise $5 million for easements on three new properties that would put the trust at the 50 percent mark by the end of 2012.
In 1984, Berner answered an ad placed by botanist Phyllis Faber and dairy farmer Ellen Straus, who had founded a land trust to focus exclusively on protecting agricultural land, an unusual concept at the time. He had an MBA, a law degree, five years’ financial experience at the Nature Conservancy, and real estate acumen from working for San Francisco Architectural Heritage, a nonprofit that protects unique buildings. At MALT, he became a staff of one.
Ralph Grossi, past president of the American Farmland Trust and MALT’s first board chair, explains what Berner was up against. “Easements had a negative connotation and ranchers were skeptical at first,” says Grossi. “Bob helped them see that easements were assets rather than liabilities.” At the same time, adds Grossi, Berner convinced private donors that land had agricultural, scenic, and wildlife value even when it didn’t have public access.
It took time and patience. The organization had no membership, no constituency, no mechanism for growth, and no way to communicate to the public what it was doing and why, says Berner. “MALT didn’t make farmland valuable,” he says. “We helped people to see that it was valuable.”
Grossi, who is also a Marin rancher, believes that MALT’s next challenge will be to support the economies of agriculture, which might include looking for creative ways to grow the next generation of farmers, nurture creative enterprises (such as the artisan cheese movement), and help connect farmers and ranchers to local buyers.
“I’m optimistic about the future of MALT and the land conservation movement,” says Berner, who leaves the organization with a staff of 16. “There are challenges, but that’s life.” To help MALT reach its goal of protecting half of Marin’s farmland, go to malt.org.