by Catt Foy
Being a pioneer isn't easy, but the Straus family of Marin County, California, are recognized as pioneers in the world of organic dairy farming. The first organic dairy and creamery west of the Mississippi, today Straus Family Creamery is a model of successful organic farming, selling over one million bottles of organic milk per year, as well as cheese, award-winning butter, and yogurt. The Straus family consists of Bill and Ellen Straus, their son Albert, his wife Jeanne, grandson Reuben, daughter Vivien, daughter Miriam and husband Alan, grandsons Isaac, Jonah, and Eli, and son Michael.
The Straus Family Creamery, now in its sixth year of operation, was born out of desperation. The family's 660-acre dairy farm was financially "marginal" in 1977, when Albert Straus returned home from college. The son of Jewish immigrants, Albert had been raised on the family farm, and was determined to help save it. Armed with a degree in dairy science, Albert soon realized that the farm could not continue to operate as it had. "Everything I tried to do to save money or increase revenue didn't work," Albert told Entrepreneur magazine. "I was beating my head against a wall."
By 1990, it became apparent that existing methods weren't going to save the family farm.
Historically, Marin County had been noted for its fine dairy production. According to Sara Schneider, writing in Bay Food, a food and wine magazine of northern California, the Point Reyes Peninsula of West Marin was known for it's production of superior dairy products. In 1872, four million pounds of butter was hand-churned in creameries, producing the rich flavor found only in Marin County. By the early 1900's Marin's small dairy ranchers joined together in a co-op in order to remain profitable. Dairy products from the various operations were mixed together from all over northern California, and processed in large plants which bottled the milk. This mixing together produced a more uniform and more bland product, but it enabled area dairies to remain profitable. Once home to over 150 dairies, by the late 1970's, there were fewer than 50 farms remaining.
Part of the problem involved pricing. Raw milk from the various dairies was sold to the co-op, at government controlled prices. But while the costs of production continued to rise, the wholesale price had remained stagnant for nearly 20 years. Many area farmers were selling out in favor of development.
The Straus family farm was founded by Bill Straus in 1941. Bill and Ellen Straus were both born in Europe and, like many other European Jews, fled to the United States when Hitler came to power. Bill, the first person in his family's history to own a farm, earned his degree in animal husbandry and, in 1941, purchased a dairy farm on Tomales Bay. His first herd of 23 cows were named after friends and relatives. In 1949, he traveled to New York, where he met and married Ellen.
Both Bill and Ellen were born and raised in European cities (Bill in Hamburg and Ellen in Amsterdam). For this couple, the land represented ownership and freedom.
But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and the products created by Straus Family Creamery are the real winners (and so are their consumers). Food and Wine Magazine, in their April, 1996 issue declared Straus' butter "One of the top premium butters in America." Their milk, butter, yogurt and cheese have consistently earned gold and silver medals at the Los Angeles County Fair every year since 1995. And, in 1997, at the Fancy Food Show, Straus' Family Creamery won a "Best of Aisle" ribbon.
Producing a delicious organic product is the goal, but the path to that goal hasn't been easy. To convert to "certified organic," Albert had to wade through an ocean of regulations, standards and government requirements, as well as create the financing for the project.
By 1994, it had become apparent that the Straus' family had to do something radical to save their farm. "We had to get some profitability into it," said Albert. At this time, the family decided to launch Straus' Family Creamery, producing only organic products. It was an exciting prospect, and opened up an entirely new view of the world of dairy farming. By doing so, the family could bottle their own milk, freeing them to establish their own prices as well. The family had a history of dedication to the environment, so going organic seemed a logical step.
Securing the financing to convert to organic production was a challenge. The Small Business Administration and the Federal Lank Bank both refused to offer reasonable financing for the project. Albert sought instead financing from family and friends and, although undercapitalized, proceeded anyway. In addition, proceeds from the sale of an agricultural conservation easement to MALT two years previously helped provide monetary resources.
Then came the real challenge - meeting state and federal requirements to become certified as organic. This meant no pesticides, no antibiotics, and no hormones. The biggest problem lay in obtaining organic feed. For a cow's milk to be certified organic, it must be maintained on a transitional organic diet for a year, eating 80% organic feed for the first ten months and 100% organic feed for two more. With 220 cows, that meant a lot of feed. Albert purchased hay and flax from area farmers, but had to purchase corn and barley from the Midwest. In addition to transportation costs, organic feeds such as alfalfa were sold at premium prices, up to twice the cost of regular feeds.
Today, the Straus' herd has a diet consisting primarily of silage (a fermented combination of grasses including oats, rye grass and vetch - a type of pea). Their diet is carefully managed by Dan Giacomini, an animal nutritionist. In addition, cows graze in the fields, and are also fed alfalfa hay, corn, various grains, soybeans, and other oil seeds. All are organically grown. Other foodstuffs provided for the cows include almond hulls, whole cottonseed and peanut meal. Because cows need calcium to produce milk, they also receive powdered oyster shells and dicalcium phosphate (from crushed rocks).
According to Vivien, who is the head of Sales and Marketing, "We grow 50% of our own feeds to save money. The biggest problem in organic feeds is that the quality suffers because there's no real competition. We are always on the lookout for new growers and feeds close to our farm."
One of the secrets to producing high quality, tasty milk is to have happy cows. Heifers (young cows) graze in the fields (currently numbering about 220). Milking cows are allowed to graze most of the year, but are kept in open-sided barns during the winter. This break from grazing is good for both the cows and the land, preventing overgrazing which can lead to soil erosion. Cows are milked three times a day, which reduces stress and increases production. Each of the 250-odd cows produces about 8 gallons of milk per day, and each milking takes only about 5 minutes.
Happy cows are also healthy cows. But to remain certified no antibiotics can be used to treat the herd. Instead, the Straus' employ veterinary homeopathy and an occasional aspirin. "Although organic dairies are allowed to use antibiotics in certain situations, we never treat our cows with antibiotics," writes Vivien on their website. "Naturally, the use of bio-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH, rBST) to artificially stimulate milk production is out of the question and against organic laws."
When the creamery first opened, there was a dearth of information on alternatives to standard veterinary care. Albert discovered the concept of veterinary homeopathy, but found that there were only two veterinarians practicing homeopathy in the nation, one from Pennsylvania and one from Wisconsin. Albert eventually attended a workshop held in California by Dr. C. Edgar Sheaffer of the Clark Veterinary Clinic from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Armed with this knowledge, Albert embarked on a program to educate his own veterinarian in homeopathic principles.
THE NEXT STEP
Soon, the herd was producing California's first organic dairy products. To secure a bottling facility, Albert leased both building and equipment instead of buying. To remain earth-friendly, the milk was bottled in old-fashioned milk bottles made from 50% recycled glass. The bottles are returnable and each bottle is used an average of seven times in its lifespan. The glass bottles have the added advantage of appealing to an older market, as aging Baby Boomers wax nostalgic over childhood memories of the days when the milkman came to the door.
To bottle the milk, Albert had to get creative. Bottling equipment for the operation simply isn't manufactured anymore; Albert found an old bottle washer made in the 1950's languishing in a storage shed in Oregon. After cleaning it up, he discovered that the old washer used a great deal of water, so with the help of two engineers, he redesigned it to conserve water flow. To sterilize the bottles, Albert opted to use hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine bleach, which can leave a residue affecting the taste and quality of the milk. The milk is pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria, but not homogenized, allowing the cream to float to the top and preserving its unique flavor.
To produce their award-winning butter, Straus Family Creamery employs a forty-year-old butter churn. Twice a week, 150 gallons of fresh cream is churned into 500 pounds of butter. It is a delicate operation, requiring careful monitoring. The result is butter that gourmet cooks swoon for, and the by-product is real buttermilk. (Most commercial buttermilks today aren't buttermilk at all, but cultured nonfat milk.)
All the Straus Family Creamery products are free of animal by-products, and their milk, butter, and yogurt are certified kosher. Cheeses are produced without rennet (an enzyme from calf stomachs used to solidify cheese), and the yogurt contains no gelatin. Instead, solidification enzymes are produced from vegetable matter. The line of products produced by Straus Family Creamery include milk, reduced-fat milk, nonfat milk, whipping cream, butter (both salted and sweet), nonfat plain yogurt, white cheddar cheese, extra sharp cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack cheese. In addition, Straus Family Creamery milk is used by the Cowgirl Creamery to produce nonfat quark (a European-style spreadable cheese), cottage cheese, creme fraiche (a kind of cultured cream used in desserts), and fromage blanc (similar to cream cheese).
The farm and the creamery are two separate businesses.
"It was all [Albert's] idea," Vivien said. "He saved the farm. My mom, who is amazing, is very active in protecting the farmland, but it is Albert's project. The idea and work of transitioning to organic was all his. Albert is the visionary when it comes to the organics."
In 1996, Albert assisted a neighboring farm belonging to Joe and Kathy Tresch in transitioning a portion of their land and dairy to an organic operation. The Tresch and Straus families share a common philosophy on sustainable farming, and work cooperatively to offer the finest organic milk to the marketplace.
The Straus Family Creamery now distributes its organic dairy products throughout California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington and is available in over 600 retail outlets. In addition Straus Family Creamery products are also available in limited locations in Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. Vivien keeps distributors and consumers up to date on developments at the Straus Family Creamery through their website and also produces a regular email newsletter.
The Straus family is proud of their operation, and consumers love the products. As one taste-tester commented, "Anything else is just milk."
For more information on the Straus Family Farms and Creamery visit their website at www.strausmilk.com
Ellen Straus' great respect for farming and her love of the land are more than just sentimental feelings. She has translated that love and respect into activism, achieving numerous awards for her work above and beyond the Straus Family Creamery. "If there was one thing that the second World War had brought home to me, it was that we, as individuals, were responsible for what was happening in our communities, and that we had to become activists," Ellen told the American Farmland Trust in Washington, D.C. last January when they presented her with the 1998 Steward of the Land Award.
Ellen's activism began when a new development plan proposed the building of a freeway to West Marin, running between the front door of the Straus' home and their view of Tomales Bay. The plan also called for one house per acre, bringing suburban sprawl to their rural environment. The work of Ellen and Bill helped stopped that freeway and successfully instituted A-60 zoning, which limits land use to one home per every 60 acres, and is still in place today.
In 1972, Ellen worked tirelessly in behalf of Proposition 20, a California initiative on coastal zone management and land conservation. Following Prop 20's passage, Ellen then helped develop the Local Coastal Plan, which was integrated into Marin County's general plan, and continues to ensure the protection of agriculture in the area.
Ellen realized that public education was the key to environmental protection. Toward that end, she co-founded the annual Focus on the Family Farms Day, beginning in 1978. In 1980, she also co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). MALT was the first land trust in the nation to focus exclusively on the protection of farm and ranch lands, and is now the sponsor of Focus on the Family Farms Day. To achieve this, Ellen had to create an alliance between landowners, environmental activists and political leaders - no small feat in a contentious world.
The result of the formation of MALT has led to the permanent protection of more than 26,000 acres of farmland in Marin County, consisting of 39 farms including the Straus' own Blake's Landing Farms, the core component in Straus Family Creamery.