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Straus Family Creamery

by Susan McCue, senior publications coordinator, Small Farm Center

Albert Straus likes being independent, outdoors, and in control of his own destiny. That's why he returned in 1977 to work on his family's 660-acre dairy farm armed with a dairy science degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His parents, Bill and Ellen Straus, launched the Marin County dairy in 1941 with 23 cows named after friends and relatives.

Always environmentally conscious on their farm and in their community, the Strauses utilized most of the practices required for organic certification for decades. When faced with rising production costs and static wholesale milk prices, Albert and his partners, Bill and Ellen, decided to launch Straus Family Creamery in 1994 and become the first organic dairy in California.

Getting Started

Previously, the Strauses produced raw milk and sold it to a co-op at a price mandated by the government. Now they would be creating their own product line, bottling their own milk, and using their own pricing strategy. To reach these goals, the Strauses originally intended to build a processing plant on the family farm. Instead, Albert found and converted an existing building six miles from the family dairy. "It gives us space to learn in and to see how things float ... ," says Straus.

The Strauses' processing plant produces around 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of milk a day, and includes milk purchased from their neighbor's organic farm. But, says Albert Straus, "We're not at capacity. We could do more."

From this source flows a steady stream of organic products (see photo above of Albert Straus and Straus products). The Strauses produce cream top whole milk, reduced and nonfat milk (in glass or plastic containers), whipping cream, butter, nonfat plain yogurt, cheddar and monterey jack cheeses, and nonfat quark, a European-style spreadable cheese made with Ellen Straus's recipe.

Certification Requirements

Being the first dairy in California to convert to organic meant that the Strauses had few informational resources to guide the way. Albert Straus waded through state and federal certified organic dairy requirements and found there were two essential phases in the four year process to certification. The first involves silage, which must be organically grown and harvested for three years. The second involves the herd, which must be fed only organically grown feed and kept off antibiotics for a full year.

Says Straus of the first year, "We lost about 12 percent of production from the quality of organic feeds and the availability of different feeds." At a cost of more than 50 percent of conventional feed, the organic feed is not only expensive but hard to find. The Strauses now raise about 50 percent of their feed and mill and mix feed on farm to cut costs.

Although milk production has dropped since switching to organic, Straus says the dairy's priorities have changed with the transition." We need a certain quantity, but that's not the main goal. The main goal is to keep the cows healthy and less stressed. We're utilizing pasture more than we used to ... and also we're cross-breeding with Jerseys." Straus explains that combining Holstein and Jersey breeds adds more valuable components to the milk rather than just adding volume. "We're looking at components and quality vs. quantity," he adds.

Homeopathic Herd Care

To meet certification requirements for the herd, Albert Straus discovered veterinary homeopathy, a new treatment that works like a vaccine. Using homeopathic treatments on the dairy's 250 cows brought the cull rate down to 23 percent. "We used to be 30 to 35 percent when we were conventional," says Straus, who adds, "We try to keep on top of a lot of the management to prevent disease, and if we see signs of cows getting sick, try to do something right away."

Although transitioning from conventional to organic cost the Strauses between $100,000 and $150,000, and starting up the Straus Family Creamery brought the total expenditure to more than $500,000, the Straus family's gamble is paying off. Sales totalled close to $4 million in 1998, with a rich product line placed in more than 600 retail outlets, predominantly in northern California, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Gaining access to retail markets initially was not difficult, says Albert Straus, because of California residents' demands for organic products and the lack of competition. But, says Straus, "It's getting more and more competitive now, and it's taking a little more work to be able to break into markets and get things going.""

To meet that challenge, the Strauses will continue to develop new products. They also will stay with in-store tastings as their predominant marketing tool. "It's relatively inexpensive and gets to more people directly that way," says Straus, who adds that some people still prefer to receive milk the old fashioned way. His clientele include "people who are nostalgic about the glass, who remember it from their childhoods. We still have one driver who delivers to households in Marin, Sonoma, and San Francisco."

Proposed National Organic Rule

Will the proposed national organic regulations affect the Straus Family Creamery? Straus hopes that his family's dairy already is fulfilling the new requirements.

"We've been in the forefront trying to fight for clear and pretty restrictive uses of antibiotics or hormones," says Straus. "We don't want to have them allowed in production at all because it's been a very clear message we try to send to the consumers that they are not in organic milk."

Straus adds that the clearly defined proposed regulations might convince conventional dairies to convert to organic. "I think it's a good environmental message that the farmers can send as well as market, and they should be able to make a decent living from it."

For those who are considering transitioning from conventional to organic, Straus suggests contacting the local agricultural commissioner, talking with organic producers, or connecting with organic dairy cooperatives such as Horizon Organic Dairy.

Visit the Straus Family Creamery web site