Straus Family Creamery: When Milk Isn’t Just Milk
photo credit: Janae Lloyd for The Farmers Guild
Follow the Rooster, 7/13/2015
Twenty years ago, Albert Straus challenged the very notion of “commodity milk” and since then, the dairy industry—in fact, the whole food industry hasn’t been the same. To him, milk was never just milk. And it’s that very outlook that is today saving our local farms and ranches for generations to come.
Straus’ parents began their farm in the early 1940s on the shores of Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco. They started small, with only 23 Jersey cows, all named after family and friends. But with the rise of industrial agriculture, small no longer cut it. People lost touch with the source of their food, where it came from, how it was grown. The delicious milk produced naturally from well-treated cows with names on local pastures down at the local farm soon became… just milk. And if someone else could cut corners to produce that milk more cheaply someplace else, small family farms with a commitment to the health of their land, animals and rural communities had little chance.
But by founding the first 100% certified organic creamery in the United States, Straus restored a vital link between consumer and producer, proving that people wanted a say in how, where and by whom their food was grown. Since then Straus has extended that same mission to nine family dairies around the North Bay, with whom he’s worked to transition to organic production.
“We’ve built a brand that allows us to give fixed price contracts to our farms rather than monthly fluctuations,” says Straus. This offers an alternative to the commodity market where a farm’s success depends as much on its own production as on Wall Street. “Farming isn’t easy. You work all day. Those who farm love it, love being with animals and being with the land. But you also need to have a business that makes sense.”
To him, a business model based on anonymous milk doesn’t make sense. It must start with education, he says, for consumers and farmers alike. “Finding the next generation of young farmers will require real skills, not just technical skills but business and leadership skills. Identifying the farmers, getting them the education and advice they need. It’s all tied together. It’s important to find models that allow for economic viability.”
And while Straus works hard to keep his own business strong, supporting the broader food community as well as the next generation is paramount. “They need land, they need education and financing.” Straus Family Creamery recently partnered with Marin Agricultural Land Trust on the Save-an-Acre campaign, putting aside 1 cent per returned bottle and raising more than $25,000 for a program that protects agricultural land from development.
“Affordable housing and workforce housing is another concern,” says Straus, who knows well the financial challenges of getting into the industry. “Marin County has a workforce housing program and we are one of the pilot programs for that, looking at how we can get affordable housing for employees and farmers.”
But it always comes back to that relationship between the farm and the grocery aisle, the everyday choices we make that determine how those farms operate. “People need to understand the challenges of farming,” says Straus. “There’s such a disconnect. But folks should know that environmentalism and farming can work together to create a huge benefit, and choose wisely.”
Every bowl of cereal, ice cream cone, and coffee cream in a cup helps determine not only the fate of our local farms, but the future of our environment too. All that in a glass bottle, huh? Who knew!