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Reinventing a winner

Becky Cook for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2019
Stemple Creek Ranch

Reinventing a person is hard work – and that’s just one person.

Think how hard it would be to reinvent a whole ranch, to create a whole new marketing strategy and then make it successful, and you can get an idea of what Loren and Lisa Poncia went through with Stemple Creek Ranch as they have expanded and recreated its image from what it was at its conception.

Stemple Creek Ranch in northern California near Tomales was purchased in 1902 by Loren Poncia’s great-grandfather, and it was a working diversified ranch for a time and then a dairy farm for a while. The dairy cows were sold and it turned into a cow-calf operation in the mid-1980s, where it continued until 2005.

Loren and Lisa were both attending Cal Poly Luis Obispo when they met and got married, but Loren didn’t think there was a future on the family ranch, so he worked in sales for 17 years. In 2005, they made the decision they would like to move back to the family ranch to raise their children, but they realized it would take a lot of work to make the ranch into a financial success.

Loren Poncia

“We convinced Loren’s dad it might be a good time for him to retire, and we leased the land from him,” Lisa Poncia says. “We started transitioning the ranch from a cow-calf operation to a ranch where we finish everything here on the farm with certified organic production.”

It was a lot of work, especially changing the pasture management practices that were being used back then, and she admits the first year they held their calf crop over to finish them was “very scary.”

“We have a seasonal drought each spring and summer, so the longer we have green grass, the more cattle we can fatten,” Lisa Poncia says. “We grow different types of perennial plants that have deeper taproots and stay green longer – chicory, plantain, brassica, to name a few.”

They focused on creating good soil and were part of a landmark experiment called the Marin County Carbon Project, wherein organic compost is spread to keep carbon in the soil, thereby increasing the amount of moisture and nutrients and improving the growth of natural foliage on the plants.

“We’ve been able to add more cattle, and we are more efficient now with more effective rotational grazing patterns and where we use science to increase the carbon in our soil. We are the first cattle ranch in the United States to have an active carbon farm plan,” Lisa Poncia states proudly. “We use a lot more water and had to put in more pumps and miles of pipe to accomplish it.”

Cattle on the Stemple Creek Ranch

A big factor in creating financial stability for the ranch has been the creation of a well-thought-out and utilized promotion plan.

“At the very beginning, we didn’t know our demand,” Lisa Poncia says. “We have been very fortunate, but there has also been a lot of trial-and-error. We are just outside the San Francisco Bay area, and there is a lot of consumer demand. It costs more to produce beef this way, but we can also charge better prices. We can ask for premium prices and get it. There have definitely been hardships along the way, but it is great to be able to control our market.”

As soon as they had their first crop of finished cattle, they opened up their website for whole-beef, half-beef and quarter-beef cuts as well as half-lamb and whole-lamb carcasses. They also started marketing to some bigger wholesale markets, but they decided that wasn’t such a great fit. About then, they were invited to participate at the local farmers’ market, and that created a breakthrough with relationships with chefs at local restaurants who appreciate their quality meats. They had also started hosting regular range tours along with catered farm-to-table dinners, and from this came another unexpected benefit.

“About 2011, one of our early customers who had come on a ranch tour saw the local butcher shop in Berkeley was about to open, told us about it, and I reached out to the owners, Aaron and Monica Rocchino. The Rocchinos came out to the ranch and have been buying from us since they opened their doors,” Lisa Poncia says. “We didn’t see this coming, but from there we have branched out to many local mom-and-pop places.”

Another part of their business came into being when they purchased the neighboring ranch and began to rent other properties nearby. They renovated a 100-year-old barn to use for events such as their farm-to-table dinners that are completely catered, destination weddings, yoga retreats, corporate dinners and other events. They also renovated some cabins and outbuildings which can be rented online from VRBO and Airbnb.

“People really enjoy staying where they will get peace and quiet in the country,” Lisa Poncia says. “We spent a lot of money initially, as the ranch was really run down, but it brings in a good steady income stream. We also do tours and the farm-to-table dinner where people come to eat at our ranch, and they bring their friends. They get to know us, to trust us as their meat source. It gives us a lot of opportunities to create transparencies, so we have made that a cornerstone of our business.”

She says the range tours and the farm-to-table dinners are likely the most authentic type of marketing they do, where they open up their place so everyone can see exactly where their meat comes from. They have also expanded the original website offerings to include individual cuts of meat shipped straight to a consumer’s door all over the U.S. They also now work with other online partners, including Eat Wild and Good Eggs, to market their products. Their ranch staff focuses on updating social media sites as well as keeping their online presence current, including blog posts and e-newsletters, and includes pictures of events that happen on the ranch.

“It’s a lot of hard work and effort; a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into the creation of a successful business like this,” Lisa Poncia says. “But it is also very gratifying. We are celebrating 10 years this year of creating the brand name Stemple Creek Ranch. Loren quit his other job four-and-a-half years ago, and all of this came about because we wanted a legitimate business that would continue through generations.”

The future looks bright from where the Poncias are standing now, but they plan to continue to grow their trademark grass-fed beef and expand their customer base while striving to be better and have better genetics. They also hope to continue expanding their ranch and make it such a success that their children and nieces and nephews will want to continue the tradition.

“We want to be in business for a long time,” Lisa Poncia says. “We have two kids and six nieces and nephews, and we are hoping at least one will want to continue agriculture in this area.”

She says they absolutely love it when people come out to look at the ranch and bring their friends – especially when they drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half just to see what they are doing and find it meaningful.

“We absolutely love it,” Lisa Poncia says. “Especially when we know they trust us with their friends to have the same great experience they have had previously.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: The Stemple Creek Ranch is a successful venture because of some careful management. Here, Loren Poncia checks his cattle.

PHOTO 2: Stemple Creek Ranch is a successful venture due to the hard work and tenacity of Loren Poncia and his wife, Lisa. The business they have created has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but the Poncias now have a successful farm-to-table beef ranch in northern California.

PHOTO 3: Cattle on the Stemple Creek Ranch fatten up nicely on the new pasture blend the Poncia family planted during their remodel in the process of selling their meat. Photos provided by Loren Poncia.

Becky Cook is a freelance writer based in Idaho.