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After 27 years in western Marin County, Straus moves to cutting-edge creamery in Rohnert Park

In his dungarees and rubber boots, Albert Straus looked every bit the dairy farmer that he is. On this particular morning, however, the 66-year-old founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery was some 25 miles from his family farm.

Straus stood on the floor of a processing plant, amid gleaming silver tanks and conveyor belts that would soon begin moving hundreds of the company’s iconic glass bottles of milk with cream on top.

While those bottles were familiar, the building was not. After 27 years making its highly regarded organic dairy products at a facility in Marshall, the company recently moved its production plant from Marin to Sonoma County, to this brand new, $20 million, 50,000-square foot facility in Rohnert Park. Where the old creamery was surrounded by ranchland, its new neighbors include the Graton Resort and Casino, and a Costco.

“After 27 years in Marshall,” said Straus, gesturing to the machinery around him, “this will give us a road map for the next 30 years.”

While the old plant could process up to 20,000 gallons of milk a day, the new one will be capable of doubling that output — “and do it much more efficiently,” noted Straus. The upgraded plant also features new technologies that allow it to capture and reuse large amounts of water and heat.

That creamery’s added capacity will enable the company to expand its network of 12 certified, organic dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma counties. Those outfits average 250 cows apiece, a thousand fewer than the average California dairy farm.

Large, framed photographs of those Straus dairy farmers brighten the foyer of the new plant. The company works hard to make those farmers feel like family. Instead of getting direct deposits into their bank accounts, or checks in the mail, twice a month someone from Straus management brings a check to their home. Four times a year, all the dairies get together to talk about “challenges on the farm,” said Albert Straus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he added, those meetings have been virtual.

Even as many area dairy farmers have been buffeted by falling prices, due to a glut of organic milk, Straus has largely been insulated from that volatility. Such is the company’s reputation for quality — Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler has described Albert Straus as “a master, a sommelier, the guru of milk” — that it can charge around 15% more for its products than other organic dairies.

Those profit margins move Straus closer to his goal of building a “a model of farming that’s economically viable, and good for the planet.”

The idea, he said, “is to create a stable income source for farmers, so they can pay themselves, manage their own businesses, and improve their infrastructure for the next generation.”

In 1941, his father, William, a refugee from Nazi Germany, founded the family’s dairy farm in Marshall. Since then, said Albert, the number of dairy farms in the United States has gone from around 4.5 million to fewer than 34,000 today.

“For the last 80 years, the farming system hasn’t worked,” he said. “We need to change our model, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

The move of Straus Family Creamery’s production plant to Rohnert Park comes 11 years after company shifted its headquarters and warehouse from Marshall to Petaluma. While the move to Rohnert Park adds time to Straus’ commute — he still lives in Marshall — it will decrease the overall miles driven by most of the plant’s 140 employees by 70%, reducing transportation emissions by the equivalent of over 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, according to Straus communications director Shereen Mahnami.

In 2019, after recycling or repurposing over a million pounds of waste, the Marshall creamery was the first in the world to receive a Zero Waste Certification — an honor conferred by Green Business Certification, Inc.

Straus’ goal is to create similar systems at the new plant, though that will take time, he said. “We just need to dial in and get everything working.”

Another way the company cuts down its carbon footprint is with its reusable glass bottles. “We usually get 75 to 80% of them back,” said Straus, “with an average of 5 uses per bottle. We’re trying to stretch that to 10.”

Straus has been a passionate steward of the land since at least the late 1970s, when he transformed his family’s 500-acre farm into the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River. Three years ago, at an international food summit in the Netherlands, his company was honored with the inaugural Sustainable Food Award, in the category of Sustainability Pioneer.

And he keeps pioneering. Three years ago, Straus set another goal: that his farm would be carbon neutral by the end of this year. He’s getting there by converting vehicles on the property from gas to electric, and with help from a contraption that captures methane from cow manure and transforms it into all the electricity used on the farm.

Most remarkably, Straus also volunteered his cows for a first-of-its-kind commercial trial starting in July. Researchers at UC Davis recently discovered that adding 1 to 3 ounces of red seaweed to a cow’s diet, daily, reduced the animal’s methane emissions by 80% or more.

Sign me up, said Straus, upon hearing those jaw-dropping numbers.

“When I heard that red seaweed was a potential solution to methane emissions from the cows, I was very excited,” he shared with Ira Flatow on recent segment of NPR’s Science Friday. Asked how he would measure the cows’ methane output, Straus explained that he and his co-workers “will have a device that measures the belches from the cows and analyzes it. So we’ll be able to get that data.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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