Spring Hill Jersey Cheese to reopen plant shuttered in June; price not disclosed

Larry Peter, owner of Spring Hill Jersey Cheese, on Monday confirmed he's negotiated a deal to buy Petaluma's historic creamery, a move farm leaders hail as a positive development for Sonoma County's $360 million dairy industry.

Peter, a Petaluma dairy farmer and cheesemaker known for his progressive marketing, said the deal is expected to close escrow in 80 days. Immediately after taking ownership, Peter said he plans to start making cheese from milk produced by his own Jersey cows and from milk purchased from other dairy farmers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Peter said purchasing the old creamery in downtown Petaluma will allow him to expand his Spring Hill Jersey cheesemaking operations while saving a bit of Sonoma County's agricultural history.

"I wanted to do this so dairy farmers will have a place to haul their milk, which is the reason the cooperative was founded in 1913," said Peter, 45. "It's a way to keep agriculture and the dairy industry part of Sonoma and Marin counties."

Neither Peter nor Dairy Farmers of America, the Kansas City, Mo.-based cooperative that owns the creamery, would disclose the selling price. But industry sources put the price at between $5 million and $6 million.

"In an era when agricultural production facilities are declining, it's tremendous news to have Spring Hill Jersey Cheese step in to keep the creamery operating as a processor of local milk," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "This will save jobs. It's good for agriculture and the community."

Peter runs a Jersey cow dairy on Spring Hill Road in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma. He makes 20 types of specialty cheeses, including his Jersey yellow cheddar, Portuguese and jack. He's a savvy marketer who was one of the artisan food producers interviewed by Martha Stewart during one of the domestic diva's visits to the North Coast.

When Dairy Farmers of America announced in May it was closing and selling Petaluma's largest milk processing facility, the news was viewed as another blow for Sonoma County's struggling dairy industry. The creamery, which covers four acres of downtown real estate, stretches several blocks along Western Avenue in west Petaluma.

Because of rising real estate values and the site's downtown location it seemed unlikely that the 91-year-old creamery would continue as a milk processor. But Dairy Farmers of America officials said Peter's dairy background was an important consideration in selling him the plant.

"From the beginning we've always said it was our goal to find a buyer who would process milk at this plant," said Petaluma native Ralph Sartori, director of regulatory affairs and manufacturing for Dairy Farmers of America.

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