Q&A with Straus Family Creamery: Albert Straus
photo credit: Janae Lloyd/The Farmers Guild
July 27, 2016
By Tara Redfield, The New School of Cooking
Straus Family Creamery, located in Northern California, was founded in 1994 and has now become one of the most well known organic creameries on the West Coast thanks to founder and CEO Albert Straus. Albert is the oldest son of Bill and Ellen Straus. Bill Straus began his dairy farm in the early 1940s with 23 cows, and Ellen Straus joined him in 1950. The vision of creating organic dairy products led Albert down a very interesting path. We know how amazing the products are because we serve them in our café and teach with them in our culinary and baking programs. To really understand the relevance of Straus, we got to host our own Q & A with Albert. We hope you learn as much as we did!
Q: What was the inspiration behind Straus Creamery?
A: In the 1970s, when I returned home to my family’s dairy farm after college, the landscape of small, family dairy farming was shifting. The number of family dairy farms was in sharp decline, having dropped from 4.6 million in 1940 to 650,000 in 1970. I realized we needed innovative solutions to secure the future of family farming in California and maintain good stewardship of the land. I founded Straus Family Creamery in 1994 to create a viable business model for farming that would secure the future of my own family’s farm, create a market for local, organic milk, and revitalize the community of organic dairy farmers in the region.
Q: What is something that people don’t know about the dairy industry?
A: More and more dairies are converting to organic production. When our dairy got its organic certification in 1994, we were the first dairy west of the Mississippi to do so. Now, nearly 80% of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma Counties are organic.
Q: How has the dairy industry changed in the last 10 years?
A: Although the total number of dairies continues to decline each year, we’ve been able to maintain and even grow the number of organic dairies in the U.S.
Q: What role will your business be playing five years from now?
A: Our mission is to help sustain family farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties by providing high quality, minimally processed organic dairy products, and to support family farming and revitalize rural communities everywhere through advocacy and education. We hope to continue on our path of building a healthy regional food system, and supporting education and succession plans for next generation farmers.
Q: How do you come up with your ice cream flavors?
A: I gravitate towards flavors I like—and hope other people like, as well.
Q: What is your best-selling product? Why do you think it’s so popular?
A: Our cream-top milk is a perennial favorite. Customers love it because it’s not homogenized, leaving the milk as close as possible to its natural state. It’s also pasteurized at a lower temperature than ultra-pasteurized milk, which means you can really taste the sweet, well-rounded flavor of the milk.
Q: What would you like your legacy to be?
A: I would love to see a thriving, sustainable, organic dairy system that secures the vitality of rural communities.
Q: What does your typical day “at the office” look like?
A: My day starts very early on the farm, then I check in at the creamery, and then I head into the office for meetings. On any given day, I’m dealing with issues at the creamery or on the farm, evaluating sales data, meeting with customers, or helping design products.
Q: What is the most fulfilling part of this business?
A: I love coming up with new ways of conserving natural resources and making things more efficient in order to minimize our impact on the land. It’s particularly satisfying when we can use technology in a proactive way to improve our farming system; for example, I’m working on an electric feed truck that will be powered by the electricity we produce with our methane digester. Making and eating great-tasting products is a bonus, too!
Q: What are some sustainable practices you use?
A: Sustainability is a core value of Straus Family Creamery. At the creamery, we use practices like reusable packaging and water conservation to be more sustainable. On the farm, we use renewable energy generation and carbon farming to affect positive environmental change.
I’m particularly proud of the methane digester at my dairy, which converts methane from the cows’ manure into electricity, creating enough energy to power the entire dairy, charge my electric vehicle, and feed some electricity back to the grid.
Carbon farming is an exciting new area we’re exploring. We’re working with the Marin Carbon Project on a 20-year Carbon Farm Plan, designed to measure and optimize carbon capture. The Straus Dairy is projected to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent by about 2,000 metric tonnes per year through the program.
Q: What do your customers love the most about your products?
A: They trust Straus Family Creamery to create products with minimal processing, no GMOs, and farming and processing practices that follow the both spirt and the letter of organic regulations.
Q: How do you know when a recipe for a product is perfect?
A: I follow my taste buds—it’s perfect when I like it! Beyond that, we evaluate and occasionally reformulate products to make sure they meet our intent of requiring minimal processing and no additives.
Q: Do you think it’s important that culinary students have an understanding of farms and the dairy industry?
A: Absolutely. It’s very important that everyone in the food business understands the value farmers bring to our food system, and also the obstacles that they face. Farmers are incredibly resilient, but they increasingly face challenges like GMO contamination in their organic crops, lack of affordable housing, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and population loss in rural communities. Family farming is vital to our economy and our food security. That’s why we seek to use the voice of Straus Family Creamery to advocate on behalf the family farms we work with.
Q: What is the importance of an organic product?
Organic production is designed to promote ecological balance, foster the cycling of resources, and conserve biodiversity. Producers and handlers are required to maintain or improve soil and water quality. Organic dairy products are made without the use of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. The cows are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and are given regular access to pasture and freedom to behave naturally. Ideally, the organic model also promotes economic viability for farmers, in part, by setting the price of milk to cover the true cost of production. That’s why more and more farmers are converting to organic. When you use organic products, you can feel confident you are helping to sustain farms, food, people, and the earth.