MARSHALL, Calif. — The Straus family started its 166-acre dairy in 1941 with 23 cows named after family and friends. Now, 63 years later, 300 cows graze on 500 acres of organic pasture.
“In 1997 when I returned from Cal Poly (California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo) I took over management of the farm. I looked into organic farming and selling organic products,” said CEO Albert Straus. “That was a radical idea at the time and most of my neighbors through I was crazy. But today 75 percent of all dairies in Sonoma and Marin counties are organic.”
In 1993, Straus Family Creamery opened as the first certified organic creamery west of the Mississippi River. The timing was right. There was downturn in conventional dairy farming and people were having a hard time managing conventional dairy operations.
Eight local family dairies sell milk to the creamery. The creamery has milk trucks that transport the milk from the farms daily. Straus said he has a fixed price for the milk that doesn’t fluctuate. The dairy suppliers meet every quarter to discuss volume, price and challenges.
“The creamery and the dairy are two separate businesses,” he said. “Both have to be profitable with sustainability goals and an understanding of the cost of running a dairy.”
The drought hit the area hard, with the loss of months on pasture and the hay crop nearly depleted. Straus and his neighbors are looking to harvesting earlier this year. The National Organic Program — which makes the regulations regarding organic production — gave the dairies a drought waiver, allowing less pasture grazing. The drought situation has improved with the recent rains.
“However, we feel there might be a shortage of alfalfa for years to come,” Straus said. “The prices are forecast to rise 5 to 10 percent. We are very aware of water use and are implementing a system to reuse water at the creamery and return it to potable use.”
“Our approach goes beyond the average organic operation,” he said. “We store the cows’ solid waste in methane digesters that supply power for 95 percent of the farm and most of the hot water for washing the equipment. The gas also fuels an electric golf cart used at the creamery and solar energy powers the other cars.”
Straus Family Creamery is also going “retro” by using glass bottles for its organic milk to minimize the impact on the environment. The cream on top is another “retro” innovation. The milk is pasteurized but not homogenized because Straus believes that extra step destroys the flavor.
Other products include butter, Greek yogurt, traditional ice cream and a new selection — “NuScoop” — that is lower in fat but higher in fiber and vitamins. Straus products are sold regionally.
“There is a need for more farms to get the land back in production,” Straus said. “The communities along the coast today are mostly geared for tourism with vacation rentals instead of farms. We want to make a sustainable model that is viable and one that others can replicate in the future.”