Petaluma's Cowgirl Creamery sold to Swiss company Emmi

Petaluma’s Cowgirl Creamery, an early leader among the North Bay’s artisan cheese makers, has been sold to Swiss dairy giant Emmi, the owners announced Monday.

“We have merged our company with Emmi, with the idea that it’s the best way to keep it going and growing,” said co-founder Sue Conley, who started the company with partner Peggy Smith nearly 20 years ago.

The two, who owned 80 percent of the business, will remain at Cowgirl as co-managers, with Smith as president and Conley as vice president.

Details of the transaction weren’t disclosed. The sale includes a Petaluma production facility and retail outlets in Point Reyes Station and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It also includes the related food distribution company Tomales Bay Foods, a key path to market for small, local cheese makers.

Those business segments together employ 95 people.

It is the third acquisition on the North Coast by Emmi, Switzerland’s largest milk processor. In December, it purchased Sebastopol’s Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, a pioneer goat milk processor and cheese maker in the United States. In 2010, it acquired Arcata goat cheese maker Cypress Grove Chevre.

“This is the third jewel in their crown,” said Lynne Devereux, founding president of the California Artisan Cheese Guild and a consultant to cheese makers for 15 years. “And everything I hear on the inside is they are wonderful partners.”

Conley and Smith are widely credited with leading collaborative efforts to grow the North Bay’s cheese industry. They were founders of the state’s artisan cheese guild, and they helped spark an effort to bring classes in cheese making to the College of Marin.

“It really was Sue and Peggy’s brainchild” to start the classes, said Elly Rilla, a retired dairy and cheese adviser for the ?UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County.

Moreover, by starting their distribution company, Smith and Conley helped connect local producers with chefs and retailers who had a passion for fine cheese.

“It’s a real feather in the cap of a new cheese maker” to win distribution by Tomales Bay, said Devereux.

Cowgirl plans soon to build a bigger production facility in Petaluma. Emmi will provide the capital to make that happen, Conley said. She explained Smith and she are in their 60s and now “a little bit risk averse” to taking on the debt that would come with building a new plant. Nonetheless, the two wanted to keep growing Cowgirl so their employees would not only have secure jobs but also “new opportunities to grow and to move around in the company.”

Conley said for years she watched firsthand how Emmi has allowed Cypress Grove to grow at a steady pace under local management.

“They appreciate the small artisan and specialty aspects of what we do,” she said. “They’re not going to try to make us into an industrial cheese plant. They’re encouraging us to keep on the same path.”

Conley said Smith and she began acquisition discussions with Emmi about a year ago.

Devereux and Rilla said Emmi’s three acquisitions show the value that exists in the region’s artisan cheeses. That has significance not only for the cheese makers, but also for the local dairy industry and those who want to see diverse types of agriculture thrive here.

“It underscores that it is a sustainable business and it’s not going to go away in the North Bay,” Devereux said. “That’s the good news.”

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