IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHEESE:SONOMA COUNTY FARMS TURNING TO NICHE PRODUCTS TO PRESERVE DAIRIES, BOLSTER BOTTOM LINE
Inside Tomales' barn-red Town Hall, cheesemaker Sue Conley is pitching more
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
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.
With that success as a model, mainstream dairies and new entrepreneurs with
hundreds of acres of prime grazing land are developing plans to move into the
market. Growing demand, in turn, has spurred expansion of creameries where the
milk -- not just from cows, but also from goats and sheep -- is made into
high-end cheeses sold for top dollar across the county.
Recent developments show the signs of growth:
* Toluma Farms, located just two miles from Tomales, was founded in 2003 by
a husband and wife team who purchased land that had been home to a cow dairy
Owners David Jablons, a cancer surgeon, and Tamara Hicks, a clinical
psychologist, this spring began milking a herd of 170 goats and hope one day
to produce their own farmstead cheeses.
They created the farm name from a blend of Tomales and Petaluma, the two
towns to which their mail is addressed.
* Frog's Leap Winery founder John Williams and Long Meadow Ranch's Ted
Hall, both of Napa County, are partners in an effort to develop a dairy and
creamery for artisan cheeses on a 500-acre ranch near Tomales that had long
been a home to cattle and sheep.
* An 800-acre ranch near Marshall is planned to become a sheep dairy and
creamery by Marcia Barinaga, a former Science Magazine writer, and husband
Corey Goodman, a former UC Berkeley professor and the new head of drugmaker
Pfizer's Bay Area research organization.
As the market grows, there also have been efforts to boost production:
* Larry Peter, who founded his Spring Hill Dairy 20 years ago in the Two
Rock area, began producing artisan cheese in 1998, touting the milk of his
pastured-grazed Jersey cows.
He has reopened Petaluma's historic creamery with plans to start cheese
production there before spring.
* Conley and partner Peggy Smith, former restaurateurs who started the
Marin-based Cowgirl Creamery a decade ago, are building a new cheesemaking
plant in Petaluma. It will allow them to eventually more than triple
production, to 10,000 pounds a week.
The company, which also distributes other makers' cheeses, has stores in
Point Reyes Station, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Interest is growing rapidly. Two years ago, Conley became a founding member
of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, and this past March she spoke at the
first California Artisan Cheese Festival, which drew more than 1,000 consumers
and producers to Petaluma.
Far from shooing off potential competitors, the cheesemakers see increasing