At 25 years, Straus dairy still pioneering

David Briggs
Albert Straus powers a fully electric feed truck with a methane digester on his family dairy.   
02/14/2019

The vision that Albert Straus, C.E.O. of Straus Family Creamery and a native of Marshall, has for agriculture is uncompromising.

Mr. Straus—who last week celebrated the 25th anniversary of the creamery business that grew out of his father’s dairy ranch—has come a long way from his early days making ice cream. He’s developed an economically viable business that exemplifies organic and carbon-sequestration practices, a model he is constantly fine-tuning and has helped other farmers to replicate. Activism, in the form of educating the public, is a major focus. Honoring the legacy of his mother, Ellen Straus, who together with Phyllis Faber founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust to protect Marin farmland from development, Mr. Straus has taken it upon himself to demonstrate how farming is not only the heart of rural communities, but also our best fighting chance to reverse climate change.

“I see us losing our farms and losing our communities,” said Mr. Straus this week from his creamery office. After growing up in Marshall, a town particularly hollowed out by short-term rentals and skyrocketing housing prices, he feels these losses personally.

The dwindling number of farmers is a nationwide trend, but Mr. Straus said that in coastal Marin in particular, regulating agencies don’t necessarily understand agriculture and how to support it. Nevertheless, he said he thinks collaboration is both essential and possible. 

Last week, Mr. Straus responded to an invitation from the California Coastal Commission to present on the innovations of his business and the struggles of farmers in the region. The agency has been openly criticized by representatives of Marin County for overstepping its purview to regulate agriculture on the coast. (On the same day, the commission passed two sections of the updated Local Coastal Program for Marin, including an agricultural section of which farmers remain critical.)

Speaking to the commission, which had convened in Half Moon Bay, Mr. Straus offered some troubling numbers. “The first premise is what we have done in the last 80 years in agriculture and our food system has not worked,” he said. “In that time, we’ve gone from 4.6 million dairy farms in the United States down to less than 40,000, and they only expect 20,000 to survive the next decade. The average age of farmers is close to 60 years old. And we’re importing over 50 percent of our fruits and a third of our vegetables.”

Mr. Straus said he sees his business—which was the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River—as an important model of a solution to this “agricultural dilemma.” He also made a distinction between conditions in this region and those nationwide; in the last decade, the number of dairies in Marin and Sonoma Counties—90 percent of which are certified organic—has stabilized, while a third have been lost across the country.

“The pressure is to get bigger and more concentrated because of the economics of dairy farming, where the prices have been stagnant for decades and the costs keep going up: it’s not an economically viable solution,” he said.

Straus Family Creamery, which sells primarily in California, is uniquely set up for both ranching and processing. The ranch, which Bill Straus bought in 1941 and where cattle now graze on 500 acres, is just one of nine farms that provide milk to the creamery that churns out ice cream, yogurt and other premium organic dairy products.

Mr. Straus meets with his producers regularly so they can adjust their milk volumes to correspond to the fluctuating prices for organic, which in recent years have gone down in response to a nationwide surplus. The farms that don’t have this close contact with their buyers are constantly facing losses, as they are forced to sell their surplus product as conventional.

“We keep our volume in line with our sales. We’ve dropped our prices from the all-time high after the drought by 10 to 11 percent, while all our competition has dropped theirs 20 to 60 percent,” he told the commission.

The other part of the sustainability equation, he explained, is addressing climate change.

Mr. Straus aims for a carbon-neutral ranch in the next three years, and to achieve the same standard on his suppliers’ farms within the next 10 years.

The dairy was one of the first three ranches to collaborate with the Marin Carbon Project on 20-year carbon farm plans in 2013. After extensive baseline soil sampling and rangeland assessments, the ranchers applied close to 4,000 cubic yards of compost supplied by West Marin Compost on nearly 100 acres across their three farms. They established windbreaks, restored riparian habitat and planted grass, plants and trees.

Their efforts have shown that the application of compost in conjunction with the other improvements collectively called carbon farming increases the capacity for vegetation to capture and store carbon in the soil. The practices provide other biological benefits, too, including improving the soil’s water-holding capacity and resilience in the face of drought.

According to the Marin Carbon Project, if farmers were to spread a quarter-inch of compost on just 50 percent of California’s rangelands, 42 million metric tons of CO2 would be offset, equivalent to all the energy use of the state’s commercial and residential sectors.

With a goal of reducing and sequestering 2,000 metric tons of CO2 per year, Mr. Straus has taken his emission reductions further than land management practices. A methane digester has been in operation since 2004 on the ranch, capturing methane from cow manure and transforming it into electricity. The digester—which cost $335,000 to implement but paid for itself in five years—produces enough energy to power the entire dairy and charge Mr. Straus’s electric car and a fully electric feed truck. It’s reduced methane emissions by an estimated 1,600 metric tons of CO2 or more each year, which equals the annual greenhouse gas emissions from about 350 passenger cars.

Mr. Straus said that dairy farmers in California are facing pressure to lower methane emissions under the state’s ambitious new greenhouse gas reduction laws, which include methane emission reduction targets of 40 percent below 2013 levels by 2030.

According to his calculations, if two thirds of California dairies added methane digesters to their manure management practices, the reduction in emissions would be the equivalent of taking about one million passenger vehicles off the road.

In collaboration with the University of California, Davis, Mr. Straus has also been experimenting with feeding his cows red seaweed, which has been shown to reduce their enteric methane by 80 to 90 percent. This effort is among a host of other innovations in operation and in the works.

Juan Gomez, the company’s director of process innovation and efficiency, has worked for Straus since 1995, the year he graduated from high school. Creativity is a part of every aspect of the company, Mr. Gomez said, from the processing to the products themselves to the long-term vision. “I spend a lot of time researching,” he said, “thinking of any possible new way to minimize the impact on people, and the planet.”

Nancy Scolari directs the Marin Resource Conservation District, which collaborates with the Marin Carbon Project to develop the carbon farm plans. She praised Mr. Straus’s talent for problem solving. “Albert is pretty amazing in that he is not afraid to take on innovation, and it is really fun to work with someone who is willing and eager to participate in projects that not only support agriculture but our nature resources. He really does that consistently. He’s a very forward thinker,” she said. 

Not all dairy farms in Marin have the same opportunity to experiment, however. Straus Family Creamery’s success allows some flexibility, whereas Mr. Straus pointed to the restrictions on ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore and northern region of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. With just one-year leases until 2020—the year the park has to complete an amendment to its general management plan—ranchers are unable to make serious financial investments.

Ms. Scolari said that although ranchers in the seashore have expressed interest in creating carbon plans, park officials have said they likely won’t allow those new practices until after the amendment is completed. Though some ranchers already implement carbon farming practices—such as the restoration of riparian areas and the reduction of tillage—they can’t yet benefit from the long-term planning and team of experts provided by the Marin Carbon Project and its collaborators, Ms. Scolari explained.  

“The park has even told the farms that they can’t spread compost,” Mr. Straus said. “They were worried that this would spread weeds—that’s just a misunderstanding.”