The well-known West Marin dairy farmer discusses organic farming, immigration issues and challenges facing the food-producing region.
IN 1914, at the advent of World War I, Bill Straus was born in Hamburg, Germany. As a young man, he was drawn to farming, which at the time was all but forbidden for Jews in Europe. So Bill and his mother fled to Palestine to work on a kibbutz and eventually to the west coast of America, where his grandfather had lived from the 1850s to the 1890s.
In the late 1930s, Bill received an agriculture degree from UC Davis, and in 1941, when he was 27 years old, he bought a dairy farm in Marshall, a farming community on the shores of Tomales Bay in Marin County. At the time, he had 23 Jersey cows. After nine years of living alone, Bill married Ellen Prins, who was born in Amsterdam, Holland, and in 1955, Bill and Ellen welcomed Albert, their first of four children, into their family.
Today, Albert Straus is the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery, a privately held company with 140 employees, and nine cooperating certified organic dairy farms, including the Straus Dairy Farm, that produce a wide assortment of organic milk, butter, yogurt and ice cream products that are sold throughout the western United States. The products are also served in many of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants.
Albert and his wife still live in the house in Marshall on the shores of Tomales Bay that his father, Bill, purchased in 1941. Bill died in 2003. Albert’s mother, Ellen Straus, who passed away in 2002, co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a highly successful nonprofit, with Phyllis Faber in 1980 that has been instrumental in preserving more than 48,000 acres of ranch-land in West Marin.
Tell us about your typical day. My day starts at 5:30 a.m., when I do things like check on the farm and make sure everything is running properly. One of the farm’s priorities is to demonstrate that we’re a solution to climate change. We were California’s first dairy to develop a carbon farm plan, a 20-year plan to sequester 2,000 metric tons of carbon every year. We take CO2 from the air and put it into the soil through plant material. I’ve developed a methane digester, which converts cow manure into electricity that powers the entire farm. When I’m finished at the farm, I drive six miles inland on the Marshall-Petaluma Road to Straus Family Creamery. And after checking on that, I head to our offices and distribution center in Petaluma. I’m running the day-to-day needs of the farm and the creamery from Petaluma. I drive approximately 50 miles a day in my all-electric Nissan Leaf. I’m back checking on the farm again in the late afternoon.
What milk products come out of the Straus Family Creamery? We have organic whipping cream, half-and-half, and a variety of cream-top milk in reusable glass bottles; we produce sour cream; we have 11 different flavors of organic ice cream and nine different types of organic European-Style yogurt plus several varieties of Greek yogurt; and we produce a sweet and a salted butter. Our butters are used at such restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the French Laundry, and our high-butterfat milk is used by popular ice cream makers like Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco and Fairfax Scoop in Marin. We’re a midsize creamery; many of our competitors are four or five times larger.
What qualifies a dairy to be labeled organic? In 1994, Straus Family Creamery was the first creamery to be certified 100 percent organic in the United States and the Straus Dairy Farm was the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River. Now, 23 years later, nearly 90 percent of the dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma counties are certified as organic. To be certified organic, you must demonstrate that all your cows and calves’ feeds are certified organic, including pasture. This means all animal feed must be GMO free and grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Organic certification means that your cows can’t be given growth hormones, steroids or antibiotics ever; they must have year-round access to the pasture and the outdoors (weather permitting) and, of course, always be treated in a humane way. Organic farming practices must be inspected and approved by a third-party agency represented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and approved for organic use as required by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Are most of your 140 employees immigrants? If so, how are they coping with Trump’s tightening of requirements? And what, if anything, are you doing to help them? I think 85 percent of our employees are immigrants, and we have a lot of support programs for them. We support them in getting their citizenship by helping with classes and programs; we pay for them to attend English as a Second Language classes at the creamery; and all our meetings are bilingual — English and Spanish. Regarding the current political climate, I wrote a letter to our staff about all the fear and anxiety this administration is causing and, because my parents fled Nazi Europe, I understand their fears. I instructed our HR department to find resources where employees can determine what their legal rights are and aid them. In my letter, I told them that most of us in America are immigrants and that I value them very much. It’s a very frightening time for them.
Do your employees live on — or near — the farm or creamery? No, most of them live along Highway 101 between Petaluma and Windsor, so they drive quite a distance to reach work. And the creamery, where most of them work, operates 24 hours a day. We have a prep shift starting at 10 p.m., a production shift at 4 a.m., and our sanitizing shift starts at 2 p.m. Meanwhile, at the farm, we supply housing for all our employees. And at the creamery, after more than 20 years of growing, it has nearly reached its capacity.
And what does that mean for the Straus Family Creamery? Well, it looks like we’ll soon be consolidating our creamery in Marshall and distribution center and offices in Petaluma all to a new location in Santa Rosa. Our goal is to have a facility that’s as environmentally sensitive as possible with zero-carbon impact; it will have an educational piece for consumers to understand where the organic dairy products come from and how they’re made. We’ll gain great efficiencies by being under one roof, and our employees will be much closer to work. I’m very excited about the future and what it holds.
What is the future of farming in West Marin? First, make no mistake, the Straus Dairy Farm will still be farming in West Marin — it’s only our creamery that will be moving. That said, I’m concerned that very few people can afford to live and work in West Marin anymore. In Marshall, less than 30 percent of the homes are occupied by full-time residents; most are short-term rentals or weekend homes. So, there’s less and less of a community. These are issues I’m working on with the California Coastal Commission and Marin County, to see if we can revitalize our rural communities. The state and county government have promoted tourism at the expense of farming and rural communities. Decades ago, we worked together as farmers to make a better farming community. That’s what I advocate for. The Straus Family Creamery’s mission is to revitalize rural communities and sustain family farming through advocacy and education, and I continue to advocate for this mission every day.
Is the environmental lawsuit involving dairy farms on the Point Reyes National Seashore helping or hurting your efforts? Right now, it’s hard to tell. The lawsuit hasn’t been settled. Currently, the farmers can’t improve their properties because they are on year-to-year leases, which makes it difficult to secure improvement loans. Meanwhile, their farms are falling into worse and worse disrepair. And, by the way, all six dairy farms are certified organic. I’m proposing that an agricultural nonprofit like MALT steps in to manage the park. An organization that, like MALT, understands the needs of the farms and promotes sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices [on farms] with long-term leases in a national park system. The farms in the Point Reyes National Seashore are approximately 20 percent of Marin’s food production, so the outcome of the lawsuit could have a huge impact. If the plaintiffs prevail, it could be the start of the demise of farming in West Marin.