After 21 years, UC Extension director turns author
Marin Independent Journal
After 21 years as director and farm adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Novato, Ellie Rilla is stepping down in order to promote Marin's farms and ranches in another way - by updating her book on agricultural tourism.
"Two and a half million tourists visit West Marin every year, and a lot of them want to go beyond the beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore and federal property to all that incredible private farmland," said Rilla, 56, who plans to update "California Agritourism Handbook for Farmers and Ranchers," which she wrote in 1997.
For the past two decades, Rilla has worked as a liaison between Marin farmers, county government, environmental organizations and University of California researchers, helping farms and ranches preserve their traditions while adapting to changing times.
"I think she was the instigator behind the concept of 'diversification to survive' - encouraging producers primarily focused on dairy and beef productions to try other things like row crops, strawberries, olives, bed-and-breakfasts or value-added products," said Supervisor Steve Kinsey.
Although she grew up in Mill Valley and had some familiarity with Marin's farms, Rilla gained much of her agricultural experience while working as an environmental educator with Circuit Rider Productions of Windsor, where she worked on a $1.2 million wetlands restoration project.
"For three or four years I was involved in doing restoration work on private ranches," said Rilla, who lives in Sebastopol. "It was probably my on-the-job training."
After becoming the cooperative extension director in 1988, Rilla spent time getting to know many of the leaders of Marin's farming community.
"I've been here long enough to have seen two transitions of generations," Rilla said. "When I was the young kid on the block, a lot of these farms were led by wise elders. My first day on the job, I was welcomed by Boyd Stewart, one of the old patriarchs of the West Marin ranching community, and George Grossi. Both of them were really helpful to me, and I spent quite a bit of time at their dinner tables as I was learning the ropes in West Marin."
Rilla won the respect of many farmers for her knowledge, her independence and her dedication to preserving agriculture in Marin.
"She's been terrific," said Straus Creamery owner Albert Straus. "She's an awesome advocate of sustainable agriculture and organic and local family farms."
Over time, Rilla relied on her friendships and her organizational skills to help many Marin farms and dairies navigate the organic revolution of the 1980s and '90s.
"Ellie was helpful in facilitating a lot of the early organic aspects, getting people to collaborate and develop a model business plan," said Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen. "She assisted ranchers on a range of issues, always building toward the appropriate action for the times and conditions."
Rilla will be succeeded by Novato resident David Lewis, who has spent the past nine years working to improve agricultural water management and aid the recovery of coho salmon while working as a farm adviser in Marin, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. As the new director of cooperative extension, Lewis hopes to continue both his own work and that of Rilla.
"I'll be working closely with the livestock industry in Tomales Bay to help them comply with the formal requirements for water quality," said Lewis, 42, who will earn about $75,000 annually in his new position. "And I'll be really active in terms of diversification to help support the economic viability of agricultural operations. No doubt dairies are in for some hard times right now, and I hope to be able to help them find ways to add value, to diversify and to bring in more revenue."
Rilla, who earns an annual salary of $105,000, expects to work elsewhere in the University of California Cooperative Extension system after her writing sabbatical ends, and plans to stay involved with Marin agriculture after leaving on June 30. She's already thinking about volunteering with the Marin Master Gardeners at the Marin County Fair.
"Agriculture is a lifestyle," Rilla said. "You're living with nature, and you never quite know year to year what will happen. There are good years and bad years, some driven by the market and some by nature itself. I have tremendous admiration for folks who make their living in agriculture, because it's not easy."