Stemple Creek Ranch: Poncia Family Raises Grass-Fed and Organic Meat
Local Family Strikes a Deal with Oliver’s Markets
By Rachel LaFranchi
Published October 1, 2017
|Lisa and Loren Poncia (pictured with their two daughters Avery and Julianna) started the Stemple Creek Ranch brand 10 years ago. Photos by Paige Green Photography, courtesy of the Poncia family.|
Loren Poncia grew up as the fourth generation on his family’s ranch in Tomales and always knew he wanted to come back and be a full-time rancher.
Poncia’s family immigrated to Northern California from Italy in 1897 has been continuously involved in various forms of agriculture since then. After graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1998, he was passionate about coming back and running the family ranch but realized there was no room for him to financially fit into the business. Poncia spent nearly twenty years in corporate sales in the biotech industry.
Twelve years ago, Poncia and his wife Lisa decided they wanted to try to establish an agricultural business of their own. They set out to raise high quality beef. They first transitioned their cattle to be “all natural.” They sent a load of cattle to a feedlot, but when 30% of the cattle got sick, they realized they wanted to do something different.
At the time, Poncia had been reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it sparked his thought process. The book caused him to question the feedlot model and why they were finishing their cattle on corn and other grains. The Poncias also began to consider selling their meat directly to consumers, recognizing the benefits of being an agricultural community just a stone’s throw from the San Francisco Bay Area where the local food movement was beginning to take hold.
In 2007, while Loren continued to work at his full-time corporate job, the Poncias started Stemple Creek Ranch. The intent was to finish all of their beef and lamb on grass on the ranch instead of sending it to a feedlot and to sell the finished product locally. They slowly built their herd and sold directly to consumers, local restaurants and butcher shops. In 2009, the Poncias sold all their beef and lamb within a 100 mile radius of their home ranch.
Already committed to 100% grass-fed and grass-finished product, the Poncias became certified Organic and sold product to Whole Foods for several years. Over time, they expanded their retail sales, selling at the two largest farmers’ markets in Bay Area (the San Francisco ferry plaza on Saturdays and the Marin County Civic Center on Sundays) and to other grocery stores including Good Earth Natural Foods in Marin County, Berkeley Bowl in Alameda County, Woodlands Market in San Francisco and other mom and pop butcher shops throughout California. They also sell to a select few of the finest restaurants in the greater Bay Area.
Most recently, the Poncias began selling Stemple Creek Ranch beef to the four Oliver’s Markets locations in Sonoma County. Poncia said this is particularly exciting because it is something they’ve been working on for many years. He said the family is thrilled to have somewhere local where their meat is easily accessible to Sonoma County consumers.
Today, the Poncias run their cattle in Sonoma, Marin, and Humboldt counties on both owned and leased pasture. They rent the family ranch from Loren’s parents and several years ago Loren and Lisa also purchased the ranch “next door” from the Burbank family who had kept it in the family since the 1860’s.
The beef cattle are the primary focus of the ranch, but the family also tends to 300 ewes. Their latest venture has been pork that is raised on the home ranch in Tomales. Five years ago, the Poncias lost a large group of lambs to coyotes. They got three guardian dogs to live with the sheep, and since enlisting Zeus, Pepper, and Salty, they haven’t lost a single lamb.
While all of the pastures are certified organic, only some of the cattle are certified organic. Organic beef comprises approximately 30% of the Stemple Creek Ranch sales. Poncia said he’s seen the organic market growing quicker than the conventional market.
Stemple Creek Beef is known for their fatty grass-fed beef despite not finishing on grain. Poncia said this makes year-round production particularly challenging and they have to supplement the cattle with organic hay in the drier months.
Poncia said it’s become important to figure out how to balance dry times, describing every summer as a seasonal drought for their business. He said it’s become important to their farming practices to take care of mother nature so she can in turn take care of them.
“Ten years ago, I considered myself a grass farmer,” said Poncia, “now I consider myself a soil farmer.”
Their close proximity to the coast provides more moderate temperatures benefitting their operation by allowing their perennial grasses to stay green longer. Poncia says that their production close to the coast with the cool ocean air influences the flavor of the beef.
Stemple Creek Ranch is part of the Marin Carbon Project, having a plan to take care of their land that can help draw carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. The more carbon that is in the soil, the more water the soil retains, and the more grass that can be grown. The ranch is one of three ranches used as a demonstration site by the Marin Carbon Project to illustrate the importance farming practices can have on their environment.
Poncia stresses that cornerstones of the Stemple Creek Ranch brand are honesty, integrity and quality. Every decision that Loren and Lisa make on the ranch and in the business are made with those pillars in mind. They love having people visit the ranch and being able to share what they do and educate people about local, sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
For the family, the internet and social media has been a huge driver of their success and ability to develop a successful brand. They have “met” many of their retail and wholesale customers online and have grown these online relationships into successful business partnerships.
“I couldn’t imagine trying to build our brand over the last 10 years on a shoestring budget without social media,” said Poncia.
In addition to social media, Poncia gives a lot of credit to his wife, Lisa. Lisa came into the business without an ag background, but Poncia described her as someone open to new opportunities and ideas. He said she offers him a huge amount of support, but she’s also just a “really good business woman and partner.” The couple has two young children, Avery and Julianna.
The family is always looking to expand their business, but they are limited by their access to pasture. Poncia said in a perfect world they would love to expand their brand by partnering with other farmers who share their values.
“We’re very thankful for the support of the community and customers who will pay for a quality product. We’re over the moon to be able to sell a high quality product locally. We didn’t know exactly where this business would bring us, but consumers vote with their dollars, and so far they are voting that they like the product.”
For more information visit stemplecreek.com
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the author and Sonoma County Farm Bureau when reprinting this item.