Ice Cream and Economics Motivate Dairy Farmer’s Conversion to Organic
July 9, 2012 | Roberta Cruger
It all started with ice cream. When Albert Straus was studying at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, he won an ice cream judging contest. “It’s a weakness of mine, but it also sparked my interest,” he admits about his initial desire to convert the family farm to organic. The transition took a few years and in 1994 in partnership with his father the Straus Family Creamery was certified organic.
In 1941 the bucolic farm located on Tomales Bay north of San Francisco had 23 cows. Today there are 280 milking cows grazing across 660 acres. The Straus dairy produces about 11,000 gallons of organic cream-top milk daily. That’s a fraction of what conventional dairies produce. The milk that the dairy produces is non-homogenized, GMO-free and contains neither antibiotics nor hormones.
In its organic iteration, Straus Family Creamery started with milk and butter products and later expanded into yogurt, both European style and now Greek yogurt, too. Albert notes, “Then we added ice cream, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.” It’s all sourced from his dairy and other local organic farms that he’s brought into the fold.
“I try to make the highest quality product, with the least additives and minimally processed,” says Albert. “We hadn’t used any pesticides on our land since the 1970s and no fertilizer or herbicides since the early ‘80s. Plus, I’d been doing no-till planting, which all fit in with organic practices,” he explains. This sustainable stewardship of the land and animals was inherited from his parents. His mother Ellen Straus and her friend Phyllis Faber began the first agricultural land trust in the nation, which has preserved about half the farm land in Marin County for agriculture in perpetuity.
The cows at Straus’s farm graze in grass pastures and on a balanced vegetarian diet of grains, hay, legumes and homegrown silage. The milk is sold in reusable glass bottles that are made with recycled glass, and 80 percent are returned. Besides water conservation, the farm strives to reduce its carbon footprint through recycling and waste management. There’s an integrated pond system and a methane digester, installed five years ago, which turns cow manure into electricity, providing about 95% of the dairy’s energy needs and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
“It also reduces odors and the fly population,” adds Albert. It’s one of only 20 methane digesters in California. Heat from the generator is captured to offset the farm’s electricity and cuts half the propane needs for heating water, and even powers the electric car. He sought a system that was affordable and had a short return on investment.
Straus pasteurizes its milk using a particular method to emphasize its rich natural state. Albert credits the salty coastal air in the region with imparting a sweet taste to the grasses that the cows graze. “Straus milk is filled with the flavor of this place. It’s in the grass, it’s in the air,” says Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery, which has made several artisanal cheeses from Straus milk for the past 15 years.
San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Creamery creates its signature salted caramel and honey lavender from Albert’s special ice cream base. High-end restaurants like the famed Chez Panisse and The French Laundry serve Straus products. Yet 75 percent of the Creamery goods are sold in retail stores including Whole Foods and independent natural food shops in California, which Albert attributes to creating a brand “I think has a good reputation and a loyal following.”
With conventional milk, prices are regulated by the state. To survive, dairy farmers must be able to endure constant price fluctuations that sometimes cause rates to go up or down as much as 50 percent monthly. “There’s no way to plan or budget,” says Albert. “If I were a conventional farmer, I wouldn’t have survived.” He estimates that every day a conventional dairy looks to go organic. There is a state fee to be an organic farm that unfortunately doesn’t recognize the higher costs of production, but at least it doesn’t fluctuate.
Straus Family Creamery has seen double-digit growth annually. “We’ve been able to set our own pricing, without going up or down more than one percent in four years.” That’s no easy task, considering that organic feed costs are 50 to 60 percent of the operation.
“The question became how do we sustain ourselves as a family farm and help sustain other family farms in our area,” says Albert. “As we grew, we needed more milk. The greatest challenge is managing the milk supply. So the local organic dairies in Marin meet quarterly to determine volume, evaluate sales and avoid making too much milk than meets demand. Otherwise it can end up as powder or sold conventionally at a loss.”
“Make sure you have a home for your milk,” insists Albert, advising farmers considering converting to organic. He advises farmers to know their costs, work with a committed processor, understand how to raise animals without hormones and antibiotics, learn how much milk you can market, and be willing to reduce herd sizes. Straus makes butter in small batches, for instance, producing as much in a week as a conventional dairy makes in an hour.
So what’s the secret to great ice cream? “There are no secrets. I make what I like to eat,” claims the connoisseur and award-winning judge. “Don’t skimp” he states. Egg yolks are used instead of gums for a smooth and rich texture. “I try not to make compromises.”