Oysters and Cows, Together Forever on the Tomales Bay

Oysters and Cows, Together Forever on the Tomales Bay

Gurgle, gurgle, moo, moo. These are the sounds of oysters and cows living together in harmony with nature. These sounds, along with the squawking of sea gulls, the barking of sea lions and the howling of coyotes, signal a healthy ecosystem that folds agriculture into wild lands.

In the early days of the environmental movement, efforts were made to remove humans from the landscape as a way of preserving the natural environment. On the Tomales Bay, we have moved past this theory. Along the eastern shore of the bay, where dairying has been a way of life for over 150 years and oyster farming was practiced by the Miwok Indians before Europeans settled here, agreements were made between oyster farmers and dairy ranchers to work together to keep the bay waters clean.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1990’s oyster farmers were in distress because manure from the dairy pastures was emptying into the bay after rainfall. The runoff endangered the health of the oysters and because of food safety regulations, harvesting had to be suspended for five days after the rain stopped. Instead of fighting, the oyster farmers and the dairy ranchers sat together and talked. With the help of university agricultural advisors and county representatives, agreements were made. The dairy ranchers received grants from the Resource Conservation District to restore riparian corridors along the creek beds, which helped to filter water before it entered the bay. The ranchers were encouraged to build holding ponds for cow manure so that it could be controlled and used as fertilizer during the dry months. These actions improved habitat for wild animals and birds, made the pastures thrive and filtered water that emptied into the bay. Meanwhile, the oyster farmers were busy building holding tanks so that they could harvest their oysters before rainfall, thereby insuring a revenue stream after the rains. Federal and state agencies, as well as the oyster farmers who depend on clean water for their livelihood, closely monitor water quality on the bay. This collaborative effort between government, farmers and environmental groups has helped to make the area a thriving sustainable agricultural hub. Collaboration is the key to environmental stewardship.

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