Organic Dairy Farmer, Albert Straus, is CEO and Founder of Straus Family Creamery, California. Having built the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River, he is a pioneer in the field of ethical organic farming. We caught up with the man behind the milk to find out about his mission, where it began and what’s next.
What inspired you to adopt the practice of organic farming from the get-go?
I was deeply influenced by my parents, Bill and Ellen Straus, both of whom were farmers and very early environmentalists, with a steadfast commitment to being stewards of the land. They saw farmland as a part of a much larger, sustainable food system, where family farms were integrated into the community. My father was one of the first in western Marin County to adopt new and environmentally-sound agricultural practices. My mother co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the first agricultural land trust in the country, which indefinitely protects farmland in Marin County in Northern California.
With commercial agriculture on the rise and milk prices too low to sustain family farming, I saw an exciting opportunity —create a local, organic dairy brand. I knew I needed to work towards a model which reflected the true costs of production and promoted responsible land stewardship, offering a viable, sustainable business model for small dairy farms.
I converted my family farm to organic in 1994, becoming the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River. During the same year, I started Straus Family Creamery, the first 100% certified organic creamery in the United States, to process my farm’s milk and sell to local natural food co-ops and markets.
What did the other local farmers think of your decision?
My peers thought, I had gone crazy; but I had practical reasons for the shift — other family farmers and I were selling milk to local co-ops or regional processors that set the price for their milk, an amount that often did not cover the costs of production.
I am proud that today, nearly 90% of the dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties are certified organic, and our agricultural community is working towards a stable, profitable farming system.
How has your family business stayed strong during the age of industrial farming?
We have not placed a great deal of value on farmers or compensated them for the actual costs of production over the last 80 years. Today, we continue to lose farmers because the country’s food system is broken. More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries, according to the USDA.
Over a few short decades, the number of licensed dairy farms in the United States sharply declined from 4.6 million in 1940 to less than 40,000 in 2018. The number of cows has also declined from 22 million in 1940 to slightly over 9 million in 2016, according to the USDA.
At Straus, we have collaborative relationships with the nine independently-owned, certified organic dairy family farms that supply premium organic milk. Our mutually beneficial relationship-centered model has allowed us to offer stable milk pricing and less fluctuation than seen in the broader organic milk market.
At Straus, we work with the dairy farmers supplying milk to the creamery to build mutually-beneficial relationships by agreeing to a stable milk volume and price.
What lessons have you learned that you’d pass onto the next generation of small-scale farmers?
Creating a thriving, collaborative-relationship model for a regional, sustainable food system is what supports rural communities and farmers. We need a stable model that prioritizes the needs of the farmer's economic welfare and allows them to pay themselves, improve their infrastructure and develop a succession plan for future generations.
Carbon farming is recognized globally as a solution to fight climate change. The regenerative agricultural practice of carbon farming is helping move carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. The pasture grasslands of an organic dairy farm are an ideal environment to implement carbon farming practices. In addition to creating a stable economic farming model, I am building a replicable carbon-positive organic dairy farm plan on the Straus Dairy Farm to share with other farmers.
The core of SFC’s mission is to build a thriving relationship between farms, food, people, and the earth. This mission is achieved by working toward the creation of a self-sufficient, diversified, regional, sustainable food system, where family farms are well integrated into a healthy and thriving agricultural community. During a time when dairy farms are declining, I am trying to help family farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties in Northern California make farming a viable profession for future generations. I hope our way of doing business encourages processors and family farmers in other regions of the country to replicate this model.
Straus recently introduced their new Organic Extra Rich Barista® Milk for specialty coffee and tea industry professionals. Made with organic milk from pasture-fed dairy cows that feature a higher milk fat content and higher milk solids than whole milk (4.2 percent as compared to 3.5 percent), Extra Rich creates a better café drink experience.