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A few times a month, milk — 150 gallons of the nearly 6,000 gallons produced daily by McClelland's Dairy's 850 cows — is driven down the road to a buttery built in 2006 at St. Anthony's Farm. There, the chilled milk is separated, the cream is pasteurized, and the skim milk returned to the ranch to be sold in bulk.

The thick cream is pumped a short distance from the vat pasteurizer to a shiny tumble churn, a steel cylinder that rotates the cream as, like magic, it becomes rich, luscious butter. Sea salt from Brittany is mixed into the new butter, which is then gently scooped out by hand.

The butter is packaged in 8-ounce plastic tubs, 1-pound blocks and new 8-ounce rounds, available in chocolate-brown reusable crocks and separately, as refills for the crocks. This summer, the plastic tubs will be phased out.

This butter, described as European in style, has 85 percent butter fat, about 4 percentage points more than most commercial butter in the United States, where butter is required to have a minimum 80 percent butterfat. In Europe, 85 percent is the norm.

Although in today's anti-fat climate it may seem counterintuitive, the higher the butterfat, the better the butter; everything else is simply water, milk solids and impurities.

McClelland's Dairy's butter was launched in April, 2009. The new rounds came this spring. It is considered among the best butters made today and is prized by chefs, including Stephanie Rastetter of Water Street Bistro, the first to use it.

"It's the pretty butter," Chef Rastetter said, "the happy butter. I love it."

The butter first appeared at farmers markets and is now also available at supermarkets in the Bay Area and beyond, including in Oregon and Washington, shining the public spotlight on McClelland's Dairy. But the farm's history stretches back decades and across an ocean to North Ireland, where, in 1929, 19-year-old Robert McClelland was inspired to leave his homeland for America.

Slogan created

After working a variety of jobs, in 1938 he and his new wife, Lillian Wilson, bought a milk route in Marin County and before long established their own herd of Brown Swiss cows. McClelland's Dairy, with its slogan "From She To Thee," was born.

For a decade, Bob maintained the herd and delivered the milk, a rigorous endeavor that eventually cost him his health. He took a job with less stress for a few years but soon began building a new herd.

Their son Robert died in a tragic car accident at age 19, but in 1965, McClelland and his wife moved with their three surviving children — George, Rebecca and Saralee — to a ranch in the beautiful rolling hills of Two Rock Valley west of Petaluma. It's premier dairy country bathed in coastal fog.

Today George, his wife Dora and their youngest daughter Jana operate the dairy. Jana McClelland has worked there full time since she returned from Cal Poly, where she majored in Agricultural Business and Farm and Ranch Management, though her experience began much earlier.

Her parents gave her a calf when she was 5, a Holstein named McClelland Valiant Essey. She walked it around the ranch several times a week and showed Essey at the Sonoma County Fair that summer, which proved to be a pivotal experience.

"I spent more and more time with the cows after that," she says now.

At 30, Jana is brimming with energy, ideas and vision. She has launched a successful series of farm tours and recently hosted a competition in which contestants wrote 30-word essays about what they would like to learn from Farmer George, as her father is affectionately known.

The winner spent an afternoon shadowing George as he worked the fields and pastures, tending the grasses of which he is so proud. This fall they will have a pumpkin patch, something the farm discontinued several years ago.

New packaging bears the dairy's original motto, "From She To Thee," which was printed on the glass bottles in which the milk was delivered. A few of those bottles survive today.

Meandering cows

Visitors enter the dairy by a long driveway that is often blocked by a line of cows meandering to their milking parlor. It operates nearly around the clock, with all 850 cows milked twice a day.

Once the driveway is cleared, guests meet the two princesses, two pampered milkers named Cabernet Goldwyn Sunburst and McClelland Shottle Ivory who graze in a special area in the center of the dairy's entrance. These girls are the image of placid contentment.

All of the cows are named and their lineage documented. There are six family lines: Ramona, Sunburst, Princess, Amber, Eve and Ivy.

Farmer George shares the inseparable family and dairy history, and guests stroll through the nursery barn, where cows are grouped according to age.

The youngest have individual stalls with straw changed daily. These calves are adorable, likely to suckle your finger and look at you with wide eyes. Although the majority are Holsteins, a few are Brown Swiss in honor of the dairy's beginnings, and a few are Jerseys, prized for their rich milk and doe-like features. At full size, Holsteins weight about 1,500 pounds, half again as big as the Jerseys.

At three months, the young cows are moved to group pens and into what Jana calls this elementary school period. "They learn to live together," she explained, "and learn to lounge inside loafing stalls on cow beds."

Because cows are distressed by unfamiliar experiences, this period is crucial. By learning how to lounge inside, they won't be shocked when winter weather requires it.

Heifers are moved to pasture, where they remain until they are bred for the first time at about two years of age. First-time mothers spend the last few weeks of their nine-month gestation in a small grassy pasture near the nursery barn.

After this part of the tour, guests head to a tiny farm store with a large viewing window into the milking parlor. Guests can watch and participate, thanks to Marge, the cooperative tour milker.

After trying their hands at milking, guests can purchase butter, creme fraiche, ranch eggs and gift items like tote bags, mugs and McClelland's Dairy t-shirts and hoodies.

Ice cream, yogurt?

What's next? Jana talks about the pumpkin patch she convinced her dad to go along with and then mentions that soon she will return to Cal Poly for a short course in cheesemaking. She mentions the creme fraiche launched in April and says they may do an ice cream, some specialty cheeses and, down the road perhaps, yogurt.

She also hopes that butter production will shift to the ranch. St. Anthony's Farm is for sale, so the status of the buttery is up in the air. She's also busy planning new tours, including some to the outer pastures where guests will travel by wagon to see the cows, as happy as they come, living their pampered lives.

At a time when there is so much bad news about family farms, McClelland's Dairy is an example of hope and optimism. And delicious butter, too.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@ micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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