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Situated in the foggy outreaches of the Point Reyes National Seashore, Clover Organic producer McClure Dairy has been a part of the working agricultural landscape for more than a century. Fourth generation dairyman Bob McClure grew up on this remote peninsula where his family’s wide open pastures overlook nearby Abbott’s Lagoon and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean beyond.
His great grandfather, James McClure, immigrated to West Marin County from Ireland in 1889 and began working for dairies on the Point Reyes Peninsula in the days when milk, cream and butter had to travel by schooner from nearby Drakes Bay to reach the bustling metropolis of San Francisco.
James saved his pennies and established his first dairy on the shores of Drakes Bay in 1905, on the same land that is now known as the Historic G Ranch. He eventually moved his operation to the Pierce Point Ranch on the wilds of Tomales Point. Nearby McClure’s Beach is named after Bob’s great grandmother; a savvy lady who made a deal with the county to deed their rights to the beach in exchange for building and maintaining a road to the ranch. The current dairy, known as the Historic I Ranch, was purchased by his grandfather in 1930 from O. L. Shafter.
Bob always loved the dairy and knew from childhood that he would carry on the family tradition. He followed his dad around the farm at the tender age of five, and was driving a tractor by the time he was nine years old.
He went to college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Ruth, and graduated in 1983 with a major in Dairy Science. Shortly after, they returned to the home ranch and assumed the daily operation of the family dairy from his father. Their three daughters Jeannette, Michelle, and Alyssa grew up on the farm and eventually followed in their parent’s footsteps at Cal Poly SLO.
Much has changed about dairying in Marin County since his father’s tenure.
“In the 1950s there were 250 dairies in Marin County,” says Bob. “Today only 27 remain.” He attributes the decline to the high cost of living and production in the area, and credits those who have survived with thinking outside the box to make value added products like artisan cheese.
McClure Organic Dairy currently milks 500 Holsteins twice daily, which is a small number by most commercial dairy standards. His black and white cows can be seen dotting the open pastures, spending much of their day grazing contently with the Pacific Ocean as their backdrop.
McClure Dairy became a Clover producer in 1999. “Working with Clover has been a good move for us,” says Bob. “They are a company that takes care of their own.” He points to the local aspect of the business as a strong suit. “I know the owners of Clover personally and that’s a real plus,” he says, “ I can call them up if I need to, and they answer the phone.”
The family also faces unique challenges as one of a handful of dairies that operate within the boundaries of the National Park Service on a renewable land lease. “We have been successfully co-existing with the Park for 46 years,” says Bob. “All the ranchers that live here want to stay, and we have worked in cooperation with moderate environmental groups that want to see us stay too. It’s about compromise and building relationships with people to find common ground.”
Stewardship of the land and animals in his care is of utmost importance to Bob, and he is proud of the strides they have made to help preserve the environment.
“We used to disc the soil when we planted our silage each season,” he says. “Now we practice conservation tillage on 100% of our ground with a No Till Drill purchased cooperatively with three other ranches in the area. The mechanism drills the seed into the ground without churning up the soil, which sequesters carbon, and saves fuel. We were also the first dairy in California to install automatic scrapers in our barns, instead of flushing the floors with water,” he says proudly.
He believes having a plan for succession is an important component in creating a long term sustainable business. “You also have to be politically aware of what’s going on around you, so you can position yourself for the future,” he says. “We can’t just do what everyone has done the same way for years and expect be successful.”