By Catherine Girardeau

Marin County dairy farmer Albert Straus started moving toward a “slower” way of doing business back in 1994, when his family-owned farm, Straus Family Creamery, became the only organic dairy west of the Mississippi.

Straus, whose organic ice cream will be scooped out at the Ice Cream Pavilion at Slow Food Nation, has been producing organic milk, yogurt, butter and ice cream under the family name ever since. Straus grew up on his father’s conventional dairy farm in Marshall, California, a town so small it had a one-room schoolhouse, on the shores of Tomales Bay in western Marin County, 60 miles north of San Francisco. He joined the farm as a partner in 1977 and made the risky, but prescient decision to transition the operation from conventional to organic in the early 1990s.

“Someone approached me about doing organic milk for ice cream,” Straus said in an interview in a makeshift conference room above his dairy. “I had no clue what it was. It took me three-and-a-half years to figure out what “organic” meant. No one else was doing it. There was one small co-op in Wisconsin, Organic Valley, but that was it.”

As he transitioned his farm, Straus found out what organic meant – not just by definition, but also in terms of how he had to change his approach to farming. To be a California Certified Organic dairy, Straus said, the land has to be free of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertizliers for at least three years. The cows have to go through at least a year transition with no hormones, no antibiotics and all-organic feeds.

Translated to day-to-day dairy farming, Straus said it meant, “Learning how to treat the animals without antibiotics and hormones, what homeopathy was, how to make it workable, where to find and produce organic feeds, how to market our products, build a plant, and get financing. We transitioned the whole farm. Organic feeds cost twice as much as conventional feeds, so it was a very expensive and risky time,” he said. “The Small Business Adminstration wouldn’t give me money without taking all my parents’ land and my sister’s house as collateral, so I got going by taking loans from family members and friends, and leasing a lot of equipment.”

But Straus also quickly learned what organic meant for his business. In terms of economics, he said, “We’ve grown double digits every year for last 14 years,” he said.

Straus doesn’t believe growth is the only way to profitability. In fact, he’s the perfect poster boy for the Slow Food mantra that bigger isn’t necessarily better. “This has been my challenge,” he said. “In order to keep a viable farm, you need to have an operation that is profitable and sustainable with the resources you have and not be forced to get bigger and bigger.”

Straus said with about 300 milking cows on 660 acres, his creamery is considered a small, regional processor, and he likes that just fine. “We’d like to keep most of our products local, to keep a quality and a freshness for consumers who know where their milk comes from, how it’s processed, what our philosophy is, and who want to support that. We don’t want to go cross-country unless we have to,” he said.

His operation employs about 70 people in the creamery and six in the dairy. In a walk through the small creamery, we saw the stainless-steel vats where yogurt is made and set, and how it’s piped over to the brand-new yogurt-filling machine, plopped into containers, moved on a conveyor belt to the capper, then boxed by workers and sent to the walk-in or put on delivery trucks.

We got to peer into the 1950s-style butter churn, which makes award-winning butter so yellow it was once disqualified from a national butter contest because the judges were convinced it was artificially colored. (It isn’t.) VP of Sales and Marketing Rich Martin said Straus butter is the only butter Slow Food Nation founder and chef Alice Waters uses in her famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, because of its high percentage of butterfat to moisture.

We saw the milk-bottle capper and the ice-cream makers. (Had we been there on a Thursday, we could have tasted fresh ice cream right out of the machine, but since it was Monday, we had to settle for taking part in sampling the first-ever Straus frozen yogurt, a product in development for the gourmet frozen yogurt shop market.)

Straus said his creamery is developing a sustainability model around reusable packaging, energy independence, and land stewardship. The dairy products are packaged on site, put on trucks, and sold mainly on the West Coast. Much of Straus Family Creamery’s milk is packaged in bottles made of 40 to 50 percent recycled glass, Straus said. Consumers pay a bottle deposit, which is returned when they bring them back to store. “The same trucks that deliver pick up the empties and bring them back, where we wash them, sanitize them and reuse them. We get six to eight uses out of a bottle,” Straus said.

Cows supply a constant source of methane gas, which comes in handy if you have the equipment to trap it and use it to power your farm. Straus does.

“In our methane digester, we digest and capture the waste from the cows, and produce 90% of electricity and about half of our hot water needs,” Straus said. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA), methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more damaging to the atmosphere than C02, so what Straus said is true: “We’re doing our part by keeping it from going into the atmosphere.” Not to mention the fact that less methane means fewer odors, and fewer flies – a win-win-win for humans, cows, and planet.

Keeping the land in farming is a cornerstone of Straus’ sustainability model, and a concept that his mother, Ellen Straus, championed. In the 1970s, when the future of the region was being threatened by developers eyeing the coastal access and million-dollar views, Ellen Straus co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a unique alliance between Marin ranchers and environmentalists. Through restrictive zoning, land use regulations, active support for ranching by County government, and MALT’s agricultural conservation easement program, MALT has bought the development rights to 47 ranches and dairies covering more than 32,000 acres — about a quarter of privately-owned farmland in the county – which keeps the land in agriculture in perpetuity.

“It’s something that’s been lost around the globe,” Straus said of family farmland. “We’re losing five percent of our family farms every year. This is what Slow Food is trying to promote: global heritage of farming and food that reflects those values.”

Straus said he thinks his business has been successful in showing that organic dairy farming can be profitable and sustainable.

“Organic farming is the wave of the future. For many years I was the only organic dairy in Marin County. In the last couple years we now have about a quarter of dairies in Marin County that are certified organic. I think more and more farms are starting to understand what it takes to do this, and that this is how they can survive.”

(Photo credits: Albert Straus and Equipment/Catherine Girardeau; Cow/Straus Dairy)

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