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Marin County artisan cheesemaker faces end to lease for water buffalo ranch

With 12 years of her artisan Italian cheese brand at stake, the clock ticks on Audrey Hitchcock’s search for a new home.

A self-proclaimed “outsider” in the dairy world, Hitchcock held a decade-long lease on 25 acres of rolling hills in rural western Marin County where she operates Ramini Mozzarella. She’s making her craft water buffalo cheese, including ricotta and stracciatella, but her lease expired in 2020. Now, she’s on her second, year-long extension, which ends Oct. 31.

According to the Marin County Assessor’s office, the land is owned by the Poncia family, who also run Stemple Creek Ranch.

“We wish her the best of luck,” Loren Poncia told the Business Journal, while declining to comment further on the “private matter.”

Beyond the grit and gumption she exudes, the 56-year-old Tiburon woman may need some of that luck.

“It’s tough for me not being born into it. I’m kind of an outsider,” Hitchcock said of the region, which is known for rich, multi-generational roots in agriculture.

She asserts agriculture is a rough life. She maintains 50 head of water buffalo with a business reliant on these gentle-giant creatures, which she’s named after rock stars from Demi Lovato to the late Amy Winehouse. She already was forced to move 30 head out of 80 to the Sonoma Green Acres Ranch outside the city of Sonoma, according to a requirement in her lease. Inquiries made to the ranch operators were not responded to.

Hitchcock needs space and money to keep her cheesemaking operation going. She seeks 200 acres to stage her water buffalo, along with some venture capital. But land costs in the millions of dollars to own in Marin County, if it’s available at all.

“I’ve looked all over the U.S.,” she said of her search.

And if she rents, the specialty farmer figures she needs at least a 20-year lease to get the maximum benefit of profiting on her business.

“I just spent 12 years establishing a brand,” she said of her designer cheese sold to restaurants, chefs, specialty grocers like Oliver’s and farmers markets around the Bay Area.

Hitchcock estimates her expenses, including paying top-dollar retail on hay at $22 per bale, run about $50,000 a month. Last year’s revenue was approximately $200,000, creating a shortfall that Hitchcock has had to use other forms of income to make up for. She got a jump start early on in 2014 with one of four GoFundMe pages totaling about $23,000.

“Because I’m not native; because I’m a woman; because I don’t have the capital; because my husband died, they say: ‘she can’t do it,’” she said, while sitting at a picnic table on the grounds on a break from her many duties. But that assumption only motivates her to work harder, she added.

Her husband, Craig Ramini, died of brain and spinal cancer in 2015, a year after he got sick and six years after the couple moved up from San Francisco to Marin County to start a new life.

She was trained as an architectural designer, and he was in the tech world. Instead, they decided to get into agriculture, buying five head of water buffalo from a seller in Southern California.

“I feel like I’m keeping his dream alive,” she said. “The universe put me here for a reason.”

Years ago, she had envisioned a life in which they shared a farm in Africa, but he coaxed her into settling for ranch life in Northern California.

“He asked me: ‘Do I get credit now for not giving you an animal sanctuary (in Africa)?’” she recalled, as tears welled up in her eyes.

Hitchcock said it’s hard to walk away from the farm, especially since she said she and her husband poured about $500,000 its infrastructure initially to milk and make cheese from half the livestock herd of 50 head on Gericke Road in Tomales, a small coastal town. She retrieves about 120 gallons from 24 milkers per week, about double of what a dozen animals produced seven years ago. Last year, she netted about 60 pounds of cheese twice a week from the milk. She employs a few other workers to help with tasks.

In the last few years, the business has evolved with a focus on tours from visitors. Ramini Mozzarella, which is listed on the California Cheese Trail in Marin County, hosts cheese tastings that come with an up-close-and-personal experience with the buffalo socialized to entertain the gatherings. Tours, which range from $35 to $65 per person, run every weekend from the spring months into summer.

“They look like they’re looking for love,” Pari Khosla of Oakland said, while pointing at the buffalo on a recent tasting involving his extended family. The family’s Calistoga hotel’s concierge recommended the experience. “We’re from India, so we grew up with water buffalo, drinking buffalo milk,” he said.

The family cleaned the table, taking full advantage of the cheese samples.

According to healthline.com, water buffalo milk contains more protein and double the fat of cow’s milk, giving the cheese its distinct richness.

That’s why Chris Boatwright uses it at his restaurant, Pizzalina in San Anselmo off U.S. Highway 101 between Mill Valley and Novato.

“I can get this cheese from Italy, but her stuff is of higher quality. I like that it’s local,” said Boatwright, who orders about 20 pounds a week.

Boatwright said he’d switch to ordering the specialty cheese from Italy, if Hitchcock was unable to supply his pizza place. He prefers the quality in Marin County and would like to support local businesses.

But time is running out for Hitchcock’s operation and her water buffalo.

To David Lewis, the director of the UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County, the deck has already been stacked against farmers like Hitchcock. Lewis estimates about one in 50 dairies operate on leased land. The majority of the operators own the dairy and the land.

“In general, it would be a risky venture to find capital and pay for infrastructure on leased land,” Lewis told the Business Journal. “It rarely happens in dairy operations. It’s a struggle.”

While Hitchcock says she’s spent the last five years looking for a permanent place for her water buffalo, Lewis — who’s familiar with Ramini Mozzarella — said some members of the community have also tried to look for a place for her in the last few years.

“Cheesemakers try to support (each other) here,” he said. “It was exciting to see Ramini, as it got going down this long, hard path, but it comes with a risk. It’s a tough time for dairy products, largely those selling direct.”

Lewis agrees with Hitchcock that many of the Marin County farms, like those across the North Bay, are established through generations of sweat equity and will.

“We, at our agency, typically say (about farming): ‘We’re land rich, but cash poor,” he said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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