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Posted by Cathy Gowdy on Sunday, March 05, 2006 at 11:29:38 :

Marin Independent Journal
Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2002
page 1

Farmland protection pioneer Ellen Straus dead at 75

Forty-seven ranches covering more than 32,000 acres - about a quarter of the privately owned farmland in Marin - are protected from development thanks in large part to Ellen Straus, who died at her home in Marshall on Saturday after a brief battle with cancer.

She was 75.

Together with friend Phyllis Faber, Straus founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980. MALT acquires development easements that allow farmers and ranchers to continue their operations.

"She was a glorious human being that leaves behind a legacy of preservation that will last for eternity, and not many people can say that," said Gary Giacomini, who worked with Straus during his tenure on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

But co-founding MALT was just one of Straus' achievements. She also raised a family of four and helped make the family operation the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi River.

And through her work with the Environmental Forum she has helped to educate people living in urbanized eastern Marin about the importance of supporting local agriculture, Faber said.

"Ellen was really one of the great bridges between eastern Marin and western Marin," Faber said.

"The thing about mom was that she was everywhere," said son Michael. "She raised all four of us; she did a tremendous amount on the environmental side; she was an artist. Mom had a tremendous amount of energy for all of it."

Four days after learning she had terminal brain cancer, Straus attended her regular MALT board meeting, he said. She served on the MALT board from 1980 to 1990 and was its chairwoman from 1999 to 2001.

"She just had an optimism and an indefatigable commitment to preserving agriculture in Marin County," said Bob Berner, MALT's executive director.

"She was the heart and soul of the organization in many ways," he said.

But before meeting Bill Straus - a German Jewish immigrant, who had started a farm in West Marin in 1941 - Ellen Tirza Lotte Prins had spent all her life in big cities.

She was born Feb. 21, 1927 in Amsterdam, Holland. In February 1940, Ellen and her family fled to New York City, just ahead of the Nazi invasion. She quickly learned English and in 1948, graduated from Bard College, where she studied mathematics and natural science. Her hopes of attending medical school, however, were frustrated by quotas on female students, Michael Straus said.

A year later she was introduced to her future husband, who traveled from the West Coast twice to meet her.

"She never dreamed of moving out to a farm," Michael said. "The way she described it was she saw photos of the farm and fell in love with it immediately."

About three months later, they were married in New York City and then returned to the West Marin farm to raise a family.

Inspired by Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," Straus became a fierce and passionate proponent of environmental stewardship. When the phone rang in their ranch house, husband Bill would often remark, "It's the environment calling."

Straus served on scores of boards, often three or more at a time, including The Marin Conservation League, The Marin Community Foundation, The Environmental Action Committee, The Greenbelt Alliance, The Eastshore Planning Group, West Marin Growers, Tomales Bay Advisory Committee and the Democratic Central Committee of Marin.

When she wasn't crusading against the latest plans for development, Straus could be found working in the organic community garden she founded or experimenting with new crops, such as shitake mushrooms.

In 1994, the Straus dairy became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi River. At midnight on the first day of the milk factory's operation, Ellen, clad in hairnet and rubber boots, hand stamped expiration dates on the glass milk bottles as they rolled off the conveyor. The bottles, which she had also helped design, still bear the image of her hand-drawn calf licking the raindrops from a drought-breaking winter storm.

"She was a great mother; she was very supportive of whatever we did," said Albert Straus, the oldest of Ellen's four children, who converted the dairy into an organic operation with his parent's backing.

The Straus dairy sells its organic products in 600 to 800 stores throughout the western United States and is in the process of expanding its distribution nationwide, Albert said. The business grosses $7 million to $8 million a year.

"She really encouraged Albert to take chance with that dairy and also encouraged me to take a chance with my business in Point Reyes," said Sue Conley, the owner of Cowgirl Creamery, which produces cheeses made with Straus's organic milk.

Conley founded her business after working briefly for the Straus family.

"I just had such a nice time with Ellen," Conley said. "She was inspiring and fun, and she was always right."

Not everyone realizes that Straus was also an artist, Conley said.

In addition to making "whimsical cow sculptures," she was a talented painter and illustrator, Conley said. "It was a part of her that she loved," Conley said.

Straus's tireless efforts did not go unrecognized. In 1966, she was admitted to the Marin Women's Hall of Fame. Two years later, the American Farmland Trust in Washington, D.C. presented her the annual Steward of The Land award, and in 2001, the White House made her a "Points of Light" winner.

Straus summed up the impact that World War II and the ascent of Hitler had on her politics when she accepted her award from the Farmland Trust - "it was that we, as individuals, are responsible for what is happening in our communities, and that we must become activists."

Straus is survived by her husband of 52 years Bill Straus, 88; sister Anneke Prins Simons; son Albert Straus; daughter Vivien Straus, daughter Miriam Straus, son Michael Straus.

The family requests that any donations be made to MALT at Post Office Box 809, Point Reyes, Calif., 94956.

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