- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
“The best thing about Ellie is that she is inspirational,” said Marin County rancher Sally Gale. “She was the kind of leader that inspired you to try things.”
“If she put on a workshop on diversification, people listened. We did,” said Gale, who farms with her husband Mike raising grass-fed cattle and sheep and organically growing apples, pears and tomatoes. “The ag community loosened up and good things started – apple growing, cheese making, bed and breakfast businesses, U Picks, etc. I think she was an agent of change here for the good.”
The Marin native earned a B.S. in biology from California State University at Chico, then an M.A. in political science from Sonoma State University.
She served as the executive director at a nonprofit in Sonoma and had just completed a multi-year stream restoration project funding by the Coastal Conservancy working with ranchers along the Sonoma coast when she learned of the UCCE opening in Marin County.
“I was familiar with UCCE because I had worked as a 4-H volunteer for the Challenge Sonoma Adventure Ropes Course and had participated in 4-H as a kid,” Rilla said.
Rilla joined the university in 1988 as UC Cooperative Extension advisor and director in Marin County. She worked with farms to prevent water pollution and with the UC Master Gardeners to promote water conservation among homeowners. In 1997, she took a sabbatical to study agritourism and after David Lewis was hired as a UC Cooperative Extension advisor specializing in water issues in 1999, Rilla turned her focus to community development through agritourism. She published the book “Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California,” which sold out and a second edition was published in 2011.
In 2010, she stepped down as UC Cooperative Extension county director to devote her time to community development in the North Bay Area.
“Ellie was very popular here in her job as director because she was sincerely interested in all of us and wanted the ag community to succeed as a whole,” Gale said. “She could see the big picture: our proud history, our struggle with meat and milk prices, our need to specialize and to define our niches, to market, to get into the farmer's markets, to set local organic standards, to communicate who we are and what we do for the environment and food supply.”
Over her career, she brought in 75 grants for various projects totaling $9 million.
“My activities and accomplishments are focused on providing local farmers and ranchers with diversification strategies,” said Rilla. “I hope this strategy will result in greater market and brand recognition for North Bay products in increased profitability, and ultimately, in long-term preservation of local agriculture. Like other agricultural areas operating along the urban-rural fringe, the viability of agriculture is at stake here.”
From 1994 to 1999, Rilla served on the board of Select Sonoma County, the first county-based marketing program in the U.S. and has been active in local branding and marketing programs including the start up of Marin Organic in 2000.
To help local farmers with branding and marketing, Rilla created the Grown in Marin program. Using grant money, she held training workshops and hired an agriculture ombudsman to help farmers promote their products. The Grown in Marin website hosts a complete listing of Marin producers and where to find their goods, current articles and press relating to sustainable agriculture, a regularly updated events calendar, historical profiles of Marin County agriculture, archived "Grown in Marin" newsletters, workshop listings, and a variety of other useful resources.
“She listened to us too,” said Gale, who recalled that after someone opined that cheese was the future, Rilla brought together people who were interested in making cheese. In 2010 she helped develop an artisan cheese certificate program at College of Marin’s Indian Valley campus. In 2011 she coauthored the book “Farmstead and Artisan Cheeses: A Guide to Building a Business.” Rilla was also involved in creating the Sonoma-Marin Cheese Trail map, which was recently featured in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and has generated worldwide interest in the region’s products.
“I am most proud of that fact that our Cooperative Extension office is seen as a first resource for UC knowledge and information, and that I’ve had the opportunity to act as a creative conduit between UC and my community helping to solve real and pressing problems,” Rilla said.