PETALUMA, Calif. — Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, founders of the successful Cowgirl Creamery on the Northern California coast, didn’t grow up on farms, but the lure of food and fascination with that environment grabbed hold early.
“Peggy’s family lived in the Northern Virginia suburbs and I grew up in Washington, D.C.,” Conley said. “Both of us attended the University of Tennessee, where we worked in restaurants on campus in between classes.”
They enjoyed the work and the camaraderie and moved to San Francisco in 1976, working in restaurants.
Smith was hired as a line cook at Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1979 and worked there for 17 years in leadership roles, Conley said.
“I attended City College Hotel and Restaurant School in San Francisco and in 1983 opened Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley with two friends,” she said.
Six years later Conley moved to Point Reyes Station and met the Straus family, which was converting the family dairy to certified organic and planned on bottling milk at a neighboring ranch.
“They needed help in marketing and selling the milk, so I sold my shares in Bette’s Diner and started working with Albert Straus,” she said.
This led to the idea of making cheese with Straus Family Creamery milk.
“I called my old friend, Peggy, to see if she was interested in partnering on a cheese-making venture and she happily made the move from chef to business owner,” Conley said. said.
Eighty percent of the milk for their high-end cheeses — Mt. Tam, Wagon Wheel and all of the fresh cheeses — comes from the Straus’ home dairy and each of the other cheeses is made with milk from a local designated farm.
The Red Hawk cheese is made with Holstein milk from Bivalve Farm in Point Reyes, and seasonal cheeses are made with Jersey milk from Chileno Valley Dairy near Petaluma.
Conley and Smith agree that challenges confront California’s small cheese-makers, including food safety compliance, access to capital and opportunities to improve skills.
“Unlike Wisconsin and Vermont (the other two states with clusters of artisan cheese makers), we have limited higher education courses in artisan cheese making and small farm dairying,” Conley said. “We would like to see efforts in developing these programs at UC-Davis or Chico State because these are the campuses closest to our cluster of cheese-makers in Northern California.”
Conley said they are fortunate to live in California, where their customers appreciate locally made goods and are willing to pay a little more for local cheese.
“We created a company with 100 employees that produces great cheese and provides sales, marketing and distribution support for artisan and farmstead cheese-makers,” Conley said.
They also have some advice for young people wanting to embark in cheese-making.
She said the world of cheese is vast and diverse and there are many ways to build a career in the industry. The best way to explore the field is to work in a good cheese shop and meet all of the players that support this growing sector of the cheese industry.
But there’s more to it than making cheese — preserving farmland, she said.
“Farmland preservation is an area that inspired us to develop our business,” Conley said. “Ellen Straus and Phyllis Faber founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in the 1980s to fight the development pressures on Marin County farmland.”
Smith and Conley continue to assist in this effort both as individuals and as a company.
“The founders encouraged us to make cheese because they knew that even if the land was saved for agriculture, unless the ranchers were making more revenue on the farm, they would not be able to survive,” Conley said. “Cheese was an obvious product for our skilled dairy ranchers to make so that they could earn additional revenue on the farm.”
Today, there are 29 cheese makers in Sonoma and Marin counties and most of these are operating on their family dairy.
and Peggy Smith
Hometown: Petaluma, Calif.
Occupation: Owners and founders, Cowgirl Creamery
Quote: “Saving the land was the first step in creating an artisan cheese industry in our milk shed.”