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Roots run deep in Marin County dairy


For the Capital Press

The family started its dairy in 1919 with the hope of making cheese like those handmade by Swiss-Italian artisans.

NICASIO,Calif. — The Lafranchi family put down roots in California’s North Bay in the 1850s with a dream. Today they are the only certified organic farmstead cow’s milk cheesemaker in California.

“It has been quite a journey,” said Rick Lafranchi, owner of Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.

“Our patriarch, Fredilino LaFranchi, left his home in Maggia, Switzerland, and arrived in America with $35 in his pocket and a dream to own and operate his own dairy,” he said.

LaFranchi made his way to California and met and married Zelma Dolcini, whose family had been involved in dairy operations in California since the 1850s.

The couple established their dairy in 1919 with the hope of making cheese like those handmade by Swiss-Italian artisans.

The family continued the vision and often visits their European relatives and studies the crafting of the region’s unique cheeses.

“Our ‘closed’ herd is 100 percent Holstein,” Lafranchi said. “There have been no ‘outside’ animals for 30 years.”

Holsteins produce more milk, are heartier and easier to raise and with better success, he said. In 1992, the dairy size was 290, today the cows number 1,200.

This area of California’s North Bay has long been known as one of the great pasture regions of the world. In the late 1800s, the queen of England commanded that butter from this region be served exclusively at her table because it was the best, he said.

The region continues to thrive and dairies flourish because it gets more rain. During the grazing season the cows derive 70 percent of their diet from the farm’s rotationally grazed organic pastures, a practice that exceeds federal organic grazing standards.

“We use only the freshest morning milk to make our cheese,” he said. “The cows are pastured 1 mile from the cheesemaking facility and milked around 6:30 in the morning.”

The milk is loaded into tanks and transported to the creamery.

All the cheeses are based on a Swiss cheesemaker’s recipes of 100 years ago. The cheeses include “Foggy Morning,” “Formagella,” “Halleck Creek,” “Nicasio Reserve” and “San Geronimo.”

“The Sonoma-Marin region, I believe, is on the verge of being recognized as being one of the great cheese making regions of the U.S. and hopefully someday as one the best artisan cheese making regions in the world,” Lafranchi said. “Our pastures are among the richest anywhere. It’s no accident that there has been an explosion of cheese manufacturers. Over the past 15 years we’ve gone from three cheese makers to 34 and counting.

“We are looking to position our ranch and creamery to be an attractive opportunity for the next generation and to challenge them to be active stewards of the land.”

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.

Established: 1919

Family members involved : 2 brothers and 3 sisters

Number of cows: 1,200


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