In 1941, Bill Straus began dairy farming with 23 cows along Tomales Bay in Marin County, California. Joined later by his wife, Ellen, the two ran the dairy as a conventional farm for close to fifty years before their son, Albert Straus, took the operation organic.
In the early 1990s, Albert became a partner with his father on the family farm after returning home with a BS in Dairy Science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Navigating the new U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification requirements, Albert converted the farm to a certified organic dairy – the first west of the Mississippi – before opening the first certified organic creamery in the United States, Straus Family Creamery, in 1994.
In the last few decades, the creamery has grown to process milk from the original Straus farm and eight other family-owned dairy farms.
“There’s about 2,500 cows across nine farms,” Albert says. “We process approximately 15,000 gallons of milk a day.”
In addition to filling reusable glass milk bottles, the creamery uses the local milk to make both European-style and Greek yogurt. With a clean, slightly sour taste, the yogurt has no added coloring or stabilizers, making for a thinner yogurt.
“For our Greek yogurt, we wanted the same flavor but a thicker product, so we make European-style yogurt and then strain it,” Albert says. “Taking out some of the water and lactose – milk sugars – gives it more proteins and less sugar.”
Straus Family Creamery also produces sour cream, butter and ice cream. While Albert jokes his love of ice cream was the real motivation for creating the creamery, he points out that Straus Family Creamery’s driving mission is to help sustain organic dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties.
“Farming is in crisis,” Albert says. “How do we build a system that’s sustainable for farmers and local rural communities?”
For answers, Albert looks to the land.
Some of the Straus Family Creamery’s environmental practices can be seen in their products’ packaging and organic and non-GMO ingredients. However, at the dairy and creamery, environmental stewardship is a powerful force behind-the-scenes.
Straus Family Creamery employs water capture systems, electric vehicles to feed and herd cows and a methane digester that produces all the electricity and most of the hot water needs for the Straus Dairy Farm.
The methane digester uses bacteria and liquid waste – the solid waste is separated and used for organic fertilizer – to create methane gas. The gas is collected and used to fuel an engine that drives a generator. Finally, the heat from the engine is captured and used to heat water for cleaning equipment.
In the next two decades, Albert hopes the methane digester will keep 1,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide out the atmosphere.
Growing Family Farms
Environmental stewardship is as important as milk in the Straus family – Ellen Straus was co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust that, to date, has protected close to 48,000 acres of farmland from development. While protecting the land, Albert believes these responsible environmental practices can be a wise business decision for many family farms.
At the original Straus farm, Albert tests, refines and implements practices and processes – such as the methane digester – before sharing his work and results with farmers in Marin County and beyond. Showcasing alternative sources for feed, fuel and fertilizer, Albert believes this education will help family farms produce exemplary products while remaining viable in the growing, global economy.
Currently, close to 90% of dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties are organic. While the Straus family may have created California’s first organic dairy, through their efforts and education, they certainly won’t be the last.