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Tribute to Mom

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Last night, I came across the obituary which I had written for my mother back in 2002. Mom would have celebrated her 89th birthday last month, so I’ve decided to share this tribute, especially for those who never knew her. Thanks, mom, for your wisdom, guidance, protection, creativity, open-mindedness and sense of adventure. Love ya!

Ellen Straus, Farmland Protection Pioneer,

Organic Dairy Farmer, dead at 75

December 2, 2002 — Ellen Straus, matriarch of a pioneering organic dairy family and co-founder of MALT, America’s first agricultural land trust, died at her home in Marshall, California, early Saturday morning after a brief battle with cancer. She was 75.

Few have done more to preserve the land and culture of western Marin County (San Francisco Bay Area), where she settled to start a family in 1950. She will be particularly remembered by fellow farmers and environmentalists as a determined optimist who brought the opposing parties together to protect and revitalize the region’s agricultural greenbelt.

Ellen Tirza Lotte Prins was born February 21, 1927 in Amsterdam Holland. In February 1940, Ellen and her family fled to New York, just ahead of the Nazi invasion.

Ellen quickly learned English and, in 1948, graduated from Bard College in New York, hoping to practice medicine.  A year later, Ellen was introduced to Bill Straus, a German Jewish immigrant. After courting for sixteen days, they married three months later, and came to “honeymoon permanently” on the shores of Tomales Bay, where together they grew the dairy and raised four children.

Inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Ellen became a fierce and passionate proponent of environmental stewardship. When the phone rang in their ranch house, her husband would proclaim “It’s the environment calling.” Ellen 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, The Environmental Forum and The Democratic Central Committee of Marin. She also co-founded Marin Organic and the Focus on Family Farms Day.

Ellen’s excitement for new ideas was contagious, giving her children and neighbors the confidence to live out their own dreams. Whether it was organic farming, community gardens, free-range ranching, cheese making, shiitake mushroom growing, or fighting every massive development scheme that appeared before the planning commission, Ellen led by example.

In 1994, Straus Family Creamery 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.

For all her numerous environmental endeavors, Ellen may be remembered most for co-founding, with friend Phyllis Faber, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) in 1980. Serving on its board from 1980-1990, and as its chair from 1999-2001. MALT has acquired development easements on 47 ranches and dairies covering over 32,000 acres — about a quarter of privately owned farmland in the county. [Update: As of the close of 2015, it’s now 76 ranches and nearly 50,000 acres!!] Due to their vision and success, MALT quickly became a model for scores of similar land trusts formed since across the country.

Over the years, Ellen’s tireless efforts won widespread recognition, which she used as opportunities to gently encourage others to find their own unique ways to get involved.  In 1996 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 in recognition of her lifelong struggle for family farms. And in 2001 the White House made her a “Points of Light” winner, honoring a lifetime of volunteer service.

In many ways the ascent of Hitler and the holocaust shaped and defined her politics. “If there was one thing that the Second World War brought home to me,” she told the Farmland Trust upon receiving their award, “it was that we, as individuals, are responsible for what is happening in our communities, and that we must become activists.”

Once nicknamed “a living question mark,” Ellen explained:  “I want to be independent, and be independent in thought.  I don’t want anybody to think they can just control what I think or do.  To me, that’s the essence of freedom; to be able to think and act independently and not be afraid.”

In September, upon learning about her terminal cancer, Ellen remarked “I’ve lived a good life.  I would have loved to see my grandchildren grow up.  And … I still have $60 million dollars to raise for MALT!”

Ellen was a dedicated wife, mother and grandmother. She is survived by Bill, her husband of 52 years; sister Anneke Prins Simons; her four children: Albert and his wife Jeanne Smithfield; Vivien; Miriam and her husband Alan Berkowitz; and Michael; her four grandsons Isaac, Jonah, Reuben and Eli – and 270 milking cows.

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[Addendum: As part of my commitment to mom’s final wishes, I acted as her posthumous publicist, using her death to help raise money for MALT – and dozens of individuals and corporations stepped up, collectively donated around $250,000! MALT created a special fund in memory of mom – anyone so inclined can find more details here.]

Copyright © 2014, all rights reserved by Michael Straus.