by Sam Dolcini

Reflecting on the question, what have I done with my time, while wandering around this planet we call earth is a question many have pondered. More than a few books have been authored on this age-old topic with hopes of finding some concepts that will lead to a level of comfort for the said reader. For those of us in the agricultural community one’s “life work” is often viewed with the backdrop of what others have done that have gone before them and what those that follow will build off their efforts. This backdrop is the same for a first-generation farmer, or one carrying on a long family tradition.

An agriculturalist may find themself managing a business built by a previous generation, if they are starting a new enterprise, they may well be tending orchards planted by someone they never even met. The fruits of the vines in a vineyard may well have been planted by a previous owner, and you will never know the people behind the generational genetic improvements that bring forth vines that produce a harvest for the current person tending the land…. But without a doubt anyone in the agricultural sector is connected to work done by others before them, in the hopes of making positive changes and improvements for any that will follow.

The contemplation of one’s life accomplishments is usually coupled with thoughts about how long the work will be remembered. Last month the community of Marin, both the urban corridor and the rural region, lost a member that left a very tangible legacy that is destined to last into perpetuity,  and be noticed enjoyed and farmed for generations to come. The organization that is the result of this legacy, is and will be supported by some of the most divergent demographics to come together behind a common cause.

The person that I referenced is Phyliss Faber and her life project was the founding, with Ellen Straus, of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the first agricultural land trust in the United States. An organization now simply known as MALT, was not only the first agricultural based land trust, but it also became the model emulated around the country.

With Phyliss’s passing there have been a lot of conversations reflecting on what she and Ellen built and what it grew into. MALT started with what some referred to as “a crazy idea these two ladies had”, and that crazy idea grew into a national model. The one question that keeps coming up is, what was their secret? With a little contemplation that answer became clear: they never seemed to accept “no” for a final answer.

Over the years many people have commented about these two determined women that had an idea but needed the right people to make it come to fruition. There were many visits with people they needed to get involved, and often these visits were at kitchen tables. In these settings Ellen and Phyliss were viewed as visitors, and the people they were visiting with were comfortable on their home turf. Many of the stories have a similar theme… they just kept coming back and pitching their idea until they got the answer they needed.


One of their critical accomplishments was the building of a founding board that understood the issues of the region, the complexities of the community, the need to be trusted by potential partners, and the ins-and-outs of building and managing a first-of-its-kind land trust. It was no small feat to get so many busy people to join a startup board.

One of the community members that said “yes” to Ellen and Phyllis was Ralph Grossi. While in his 30’s he was a member of the founding board, and the first chairman of MALT.  Ralph’s recollection was that Phyllis was one of the early environmental activists that recognized the benefits of a positive relationship with the ranching community. Her environmental science background and her relationship with Ellen Straus, coupled with a high energy level, were crucial to sustaining the effort to create MALT in those early years when there were no other agricultural land trusts.

And from those early years and kitchen table visits, MALT has grown into an organization that boasts 92 easements, and over 55 thousand acres of Marin agricultural land permanently protected. It is an organization that brings together numerous diverse communities under the same banner for the same cause. It goes without saying that the agricultural sector of Marin would be a dramatically different place if not for the work of Ellen and Phyliss, 

What did Phyliss do with her time here on earth? She, along with Ellen, took a crazy idea and built it into a body of work with a local impact on our county that I do not think I will ever see again in my lifetime. And I must say I was proud to call Phyliss a friend, even if she would get flustered with me at times. I can still see her wagging her finger at me when we did not agree on something. I was even honored to spend a few years on the board of MALT doing my small part to build on what others before me had started, and in hopes that after I left there would be value to others that would follow.

While Phyllis was not a farmer, she seemed to embody the drive and long-term understanding that seem to almost come naturally to most that take up the mantel of being a family farmer. And like someone involved in agriculture, both she and Ellen built something tangible with their time here on earth, and it is something that will have a positive impact for generations to come.