Oh to be a Straus cow, what a lovely life!
We arrived bright and early with only a few unexpected navigational hiccups and one coordinational mishap (not surprisingly mine) on our way from San Francisco to Marshall in West Marin, California to see for ourselves why the dairy products from the first certified organic farm west of the Mississippi are so incredibly outstanding.
After rendezvous’ing with the other participants in Straus Family Creamery’s twice-yearly Chef’s Tour, we all piled into six cars to head up to the beautifully situated dairy farm on Northern California’s picturesque Tomales Bay.
After a nice foot bath on the way onto the property to prevent any outside contaminants and germs, the first thing we saw on our walk up was the “maternity ward,” a large fenced yard speckled with a small collection of the most pregnant cows in the herd.
Cows, like humans, gestate their offspring for nine months. Straus cows spend the last two months of pregnancy off of the milking line, relaxin’… just making a baby cow and noshing on fresh grass in the pastures all day. The last few weeks of their pregnancies are spent together, close to home, awaiting the big day when their calves are born.
At Straus, 100% of the calves they add to their herd of approximately 600 cows are bred and born right on the Farm. They are a mix of Jerseys and Holsteins, some pure bred and some mixed. In the herd there are also a few Swiss Brown cows[i] for diversity.
As we continued on the tour, we learned the reason for the mixed herd. Holsteins produce a greater volume of milk with a lower fat to water ratio, meaning they produce a less creamy milk. Jerseys, on the other hand, produce a lesser volume of milk with a higher fat to water content, meaning they produce a smaller amount of creamier milk. The diversity of the herd makes for a richer milk product when it is combined at the Creamery.
Back in the 1940s, Bill Straus, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, started this herd with 23 Jersey cows, all named for various friends and relatives. The herd is now nearly 600 healthy, organic cows strong, 275 of which are milking cows. “The Girls” are given lots of space and live in an environment that is “as stress free as possible.” This is not only important for their general well-being and happiness but it also keeps them all in excellent health and as a result there is a very low incidence of illness in the herd.
How do you give a herd of cows an environment that is as stress free as possible you might wonder? Well, in addition to basic comforts like sleeping in a warm barn full of foam mattresses covered in rice hulls, at Straus the cows spend a good amount of their time grazing on fresh grass in the pastures. Due to erosion concerns and the health of the herd, they spend their time out there when the weather permits, mostly from April to November, with the exception of very wet conditions. To supplement their pasture diet, the Farm purchases 100% organic, vegetarian feed from a local mill and also throws in some nutrient rich silage that is fermented right there on the Farm with fodder from local, organic cover crops like alfalfa. (I tried some, it was delightful!) An interesting factoid related to the feed at Straus is that they are the first dairy product company to be non-GMO Project Verified! Trust us, this is NO small feat and we commend their tireless efforts to this cause. Not surprisingly, they are also Animal Welfare Approved.
We then moved on to my favorite part of the tour. I don’t think too much discussion on the subject is required so so just sit back and enjoy this adorable intermission with a BABY COW PHOTO MONTAGE!!!
Are you enamored? We were!
As we were walking down the hill from the calf barn, I noticed there was something amiss… Ever driven down I-5 or through an area with lots of dairy or cattle farms? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? The acrid smell of animal waste, right? Well, I was shocked when it suddenly occurred to me that all the time we had been on the farm discussing organic practices and taste testing probiotic cow fodder, I had yet to smell poop! “What is this witchcraft?!?” I wondered to myself. As we got closer everything was revealed; the answer is kind of magical, as it turns out…
Two words: METHANE DIGESTER.
Sounds pretty badass, right? Well, it is. Read on.
With a grant to help them get started, the Farm was able to put in an amazing piece of equipment that allows them to take the liquid waste[ii] from the cows as well as the waste water from the Creamery and through an anabolic process that separates the methane gasses, they create RENEWABLE ENERGY that powers everything on the farm, even some of the vehicles. Read that sentence again if the amazingness hasn’t sunk in yet. Not only does this drastically reduce their carbon footprint by negating their emissions, it also allows them to put the would-be detrimental by-products of raising milking cows to a very good use. The system hasn’t just been environmentally beneficial, the Farm saves ~$4,000 a month in energy costs and the whole system paid for itself in only four years from the time it was installed. I’m no financial guru but talk about a good ROI!! That’s not just smart business, it’s environmentally responsible business that is paying off in every way.
You might be thinking that it’s impossible to beat that kind of eco-friendly cred! Well, you’d be wrong. Bill Straus wasn’t the only California pioneer and champion of responsible farming. His wife, Ellen Straus was green waaaaay before it was hip! She co-founded our country’s first agricultural land trust, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which can be credited with protecting and preserving the farming way of life in west Marin County, making it possible for the thriving, organic community of farmers that cultivate there today. Albert Straus, their son, took on their legacy and converted the Straus farm to organic in 1994, the same year he founded the first 100% certified organic creamery in the US. Talk about legit!
As we piled back into our cars to head to the Creamery, I have to admit I got a little verklempt ruminating on what a beautiful, holistic system the Straus Family and their colleagues have built in that place. I truly admire the legacy that environmentalists Bill and Ellen Straus began and that their son Albert is now continuing to build. I’m so tremendously grateful we have access to a product not only outstanding in flavor and quality but surpassing in environmental responsibility, not just for our candy products but for my personal use as well. If I wasn’t a hardcore devotee to the line of Straus products before, I would be now.
To be continued at the Creamery….
***Photos courtesy of the amazing Cap’n Rob!!***