Sonoma County farms turning to niche products to preserve dairies, bolster bottom line

  • Toluma Farms (the name combines "Tomales" and "Petaluma") is where owners Tamara Hicks (cq),rear, and her husband David Jablons (not pictured; they still have other "day jobs")milk goats for the North Bay's growing cheese industry and hope to eventually start their own creamery and make their own cheeses. (Press Democrat/ Mark Aronoff)

Inside Tomales' barn-red Town Hall, cheesemaker Sue Conley is pitching more than cheese.

She's promoting the North Bay's lush grasslands, likening the sweeping coastal hills to the great dairy provinces of Europe, a Normandy north of the gate, as it was once described.

"We should market our region the way they do in France," Conley said at a tasting and presentation for potential cheesemakers. "This is a great milk-producing region and we should play on that."

Both longtime dairy families and monied newcomers are heeding Conley's vision, joining the specialty cheese business that is building a cachet akin to Sonoma County wine. Proponents see it as a way to help preserve dairies, a North Bay agricultural tradition.

Sonoma County produces more milk than it did three decades ago, but there are far fewer cows and dairies. And adjusted for inflation, farmers are getting less than half of what they were paid in 1976.

To bolster the bottom line, they're increasingly turning to niche products such as organic milk and artisan cheeses.

Last month's Tomales event, sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension, brought Conley and other cheese aficionados to the heartland of Sonoma-Marin dairy country. They urged those in attendance, including farmers whose families had sold milk for generations, to join their ranks. A few present said they planned to do just that.

"We just see an opportunity to add a business that would be complementary," said Rick Lafranchi, whose family has owned a Marin County dairy for nearly 90 years. The family, including Lafranchi's two sisters and two brothers, have hired an architect to design a creamery for making cheese on their ranch in the Nicasio Valley.

Three decades ago, the region's artisan cheeses were crafted by a few pioneers, including Marin French Cheese, Vella Cheese, Sonoma Cheese and Laura Chenel's Ch?re.

Today, even as the number of dairies is decreasing, the number of North Bay cheesemakers has grown to more than a dozen and their products are moving onto shelves of top-flight restaurants and food stores across the country. Leading cheesemakers, like their cousins in the wine industry, are garnering increasing recognition with national and occasionally international awards.

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