Why a Vegan Spent the Day on a Dairy Farm.

Via on Jul 21, 2011

Photo: Erin Schrode

To say that vegans and dairy do not belong together is to state the obvious. Why then did I, a vegan, spend the day at Straus Family Creamery last week? Allow me to explain…

Photo: Erin Schrode

I jumped at the rare chance of being invited to attend one of the chefs’ tours of the West Marin farm and creamery and decided that if I were to go, I would fully embrace the experience, whatever it entailed. Yes, dairy and all.

The town of Marshall, where Straus is located, is utterly picturesque. Against a backdrop of seemingly endless rolling hills, 600 cows roam 600 acres. Now that sounds like a pretty nice ratio, if you ask me.

A mix of Holsteins (the good ol’ recognizable black and white cows), Jerseys (the brown ones), and some crossbreeds roam the abundant grazing space. These cows are outside far more days than the nationally mandated 120 days. Why not all year round? Because, in the dead of winter there is: A) risk of sickness and B) risk of soil erosion, which could lead to a drop in water quality of nearby Tamales Bay.

Such a low stress environment combined with a balanced diet tailored to cows’ ages, spacious area to roam freely and a cool climate means healthier cows. They even have mattresses in their stalls for comfort! These precautions ensure that homeopathic medicines, not strong drugs, are plenty strong to treat the cows.

No to GMO

Straus is big on non-GMO. For the past four years, they have brought in their own whole grains to mill themselves, testing all feed and ingredients to ensure no trace of GMO. Straus was the first

Photo: Erin Schrode

non-GMO Project verified farm, a well-deserved title. With all Straus products now labeled as such, they are pushing the industry towards wider testing and verification.

The farm has all sorts of other certifications too: USDA certified organic, CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), animal welfare approved, Kosher, and on and on.

Albert Straus, of the Straus family line itself, praises the big companies that are hopping on the non-GMO bandwagon: “A lot of the big guys – big organic and big dairy – don’t see that they can do anything about it, but a few companies are really stepping it up, like Nature’s Path and Lundberg.” And Straus keeps on top of legal and legislative fronts as well.

Healthy cows start with healthy land. No pesticides and no insecticides is a given, but Straus monitors all feed that comes in as well. When alfalfa is engineered to be sprayed, 86% of corn and 93% of soy is GMO and flax and canola are tampered with, there is a great risk of contamination across the board, says Albert. Making “roundup ready” crops is becoming more and more prevalent as companies forgo human health to make money. Shame!

The Milk

Now, let’s talk milk – about which I knew close to nothing prior to arrival at Straus, apart from having milked a few goats at summer camp way back when. Holstein cows give off 7 to 8 gallons per

Photo: Erin Schrode

day, whereas Jerseys produce 4 ½ to 5 gallons, but this milk contains higher butterfat content (the gold!). Straus is transitioning toward a greater ratio of Jerseys / crossbreds to Holsteins, aimingto increase from the current 60% to 80% or 90% in the coming years. “We don’t need the volume, we need the components.”

Cows are milked twice a day – around 4:30 am and 3:30 pm – and typically line up in the same order with an “alpha female” at the head. Creatures of habit indeed! During the eight-minute milking process, statistics are gathered including quantity, age, fat, and metrics via the computerized chip system. Straus cows are milked an average of 6 to 10 years, some even into their teens, whereas cows at a conventional dairy last only 5 or maybe 6 years.

The calves are absolutely adorable and live together, grouped by age. Each has a tag, which not only boasts the cow’s name (Annabella was my favorite), but also a computerized mechanism to track it throughout its life. The calf feeding system is quite fancy, designed to simulate the natural process. Calves are able to sip milk whenever they desire, a continual experience that mimics what a mother would provide, but supply is cut off based upon earlier quantities, age, etc and eventually weans calves off milk to feed.

On the Farm

There is a big ol’ steamy heap of something under a tarp. Silage, I learn: a fermented (and delicious, says one brave chef who tastes it) grain mixture that reduces intestinal gas and methane released by cows.

Another huge balloon-like covering is a methane digester. So that’s why there is no smell on the farm! It produces enough energy to run the entire farm and power Albert’s electric car. Barns are mucked, waste goes into filtering ponds where solids (fertilizer for fields) separate from methane gas, which is siphoned to run the generators that power the farm. Wastewater and milk are also recycled into the pond. Plus, the heat of the generator warms the barns too. And there you have it: the glorious system of the first methane digester in California!

Did you know? Methane is 21 times more toxic to the environment than carbon dioxide. And flammable too! So says Albert Straus.

Off to the Creamery

Photo: Erin Schrode

The first organic creamery in the whole country, Straus is all about minimizing environmental impact and recently conducted a sustainability study with forty baseline measurements regarding consumption of energy, water, and more. The company aims to reduce its carbon footprint, cutting water and energy use by 20% and waste by 30% this year. And they are serious about it, with a dedicated sustainability manager position, volunteers on hand to measure the dumpster contents and hiring of a non-toxic cleaning company. “Everybody has to be bought in and commit,” Albert declared.

Starus’ creamery is tres cool. The massive yogurt filler machine drops buckets, fills ‘em up with the product, pops on the lid, and off they go down the conveyor belt before being loaded into boxes and shipped all over the country. Vat rooms have 500 and 1500-gallon tanks for yogurt, ice cream, and more. The freezer is, well, a freezer – a proper hardening room. Rather than some flash freeze set ups, Straus products are frozen over an extended period of time at –15º until they set. The butter churner takes up the better part of one room and has been turning cream into big blocks of bright yellow butter since 1952. This relatively small facility is highly productive and has found great success because of its integrity and commitment to health and the environment. Beautiful.

 

Three Facts

 

Split milk: Almost all Straus milk is non-homogenized, meaning the cream floats to the top. So no, the milk has not gone bad,

Photo: Erin Schrode

just give it a little swirl and all will be well. The barista milk is Straus’ one lightly homogenized milk, created in partnership with the Bay Area’s leading coffee people for easy use and mixing. Go crowd-sourcing!

Bottles: Straus’ glass milk bottles can be reused up to eight times and are washed at the creamery using a low-flow system that reuses water. The bottle program has a 80% return rate – and Straus claims that the remaining 20% (mostly consisting of the adorable one pint bottles) are used by restaurants as flower vases!

Science: Albert pioneered the concept of using reverse osmosis to naturally condense milk without having to add artificial or non-organic thickeners. It removes water to 15% solids, which are then added back in to thicken various products like yogurt.

Tastings

 

Dare I call the tastings the best part of the day? Disclaimer: I cannot remember the last time I had milk in my life. Truthfully. I think it may have been when my grandparents sat me down at the breakfast table as a young child and demanded I eat my cereal with something in it, rather than dry. Milk was never my thing. But what Straus put in front of me was quite tempting (interchange with fresh, flavorful, delicious, or any other positive adjective)… a summary of my notes:

1)    Cream top whole milk: earthy flavor

Photo: Erin Schrode

2)    Barista milk: homogenized, thin, uniform distribution / consistency for simple use in recipes, especially coffee

3)    Nonfat yogurt

4)    Whole milk yogurt. Straus yogurts are thinner than most, more of a silky European style consistency without any added pectin or food starch

5)    Butter: sweet, unsalted, very yellow (vibrancy of color is based on seasonal diet of cows)

6)    Brown sugar banana ice cream: Yum! This is one of their many delicious ice creams, in addition to the ice cream and soft serve bases that they send to restaurants that churn their own products

7)    Caramel toffee crunch ice cream. This new slightly-salty flavor is made with the only verified organic, kosher, non-GMO caramel that is made especially for Straus

8)    Chocolate soft serve

9)    Raspberry: this creamy flavor combination takes me back to my summer camp days with Haagen Dazs sorbet bars!

10) Mint chocolate chip: cool and refreshing

Future Plans

 

Product-wise, here are some highlights of what is on the horizon for Straus:

–       My favorite: a bag-in-box refillable milk, which greatly reduces packaging and is wholly biodegradable. It is made of recycled materials and is fully recyclable, to entirely replace plastic bottles. Very similar to the new seventh generation cleaning packaging – a brilliant concept with a design based on the milk bottle.

–       Lactose free milk, which many will celebrate (bye bye pills!)

Photo: Erin Schrode

–       4 oz and quart-size chocolate and vanilla ice cream

–       Greek yogurt, in both full and nonfat

–       A mandated 20% post-consumer waste content for yogurt containers. Suppliers must use recycled plastic or risk losing the Straus contract.

Straus dreams of creating an organic processing hub complete with a visitor center, cheese-maker facilities, and artisan producers. How cool would that be! Do I see a partnership with internationally renowned green architect William McDonough somewhere down the line? I certainly hope so.

Ever-the-innovators, I imagine there is much more to come from Straus. “We’re pushing the limits in a lot of different areas,” says Albert. And thank goodness they are. We need more change-makers, more companies bringing about change and demanding reform in this world. Go local, go sustainable, go organic! I, a vegan, stand behind Straus Family Creamery.

 

About Erin Schrode

Erin Schrode is a young ecoRenaissance woman. As the “face of the new green generation,” the co-founder and spokeswoman of Teens Turning Green promotes global sustainability, youth leadership, environmental education, and conscious lifestyle choices. After working in disaster response in Haiti, she founded and launched The Schoolbag, a youth education project to provide tools and materials for students in need, as well as initiate active citizenry and environmental stewardship. Erin shares her knowledge as an eco expert on television and the radio, in books, newspapers, magazines, websites, podcasts, and her own ecoRenaissance blog and twitter feed. She speaks frequently, serves on panels, and hosts events, shows, conferences, summits, and videos to raise public awareness about environmental and social responsibility for individuals, schools, and communities. Erin is in her second year as a DEANS Scholar at New York University—currently studying abroad in the Middle East, after a term in West Africa—majoring in Cross-Cultural Diplomacy and Communications.

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11 Responses to “Why a Vegan Spent the Day on a Dairy Farm.”

  1. herya says:

    Sounds great. Just two buts:
    – what happens to cows once they are past milking age?
    – what happens to male calves?

    There are reasons why vegans are vegans…

    • Shaylen Snarski says:

      Even their shiny little story of select things about their farm does NOT sound good. Babies being taken away from their mothers and locked away so someone else can profit off the milk? If this was done to a human mother and child it would be considered some of the most demonic abuse and exploitation. Not to mention the fact that these cows are all RAPED and forced to constantly produce milk for humans to profit.

  2. Mallory W. says:

    The only milk that is vegan is human breast milk that has been freely given to you. "Happy" milk cows cannot give consent for you to use their milk–hence not vegan. And cows' milk is for cow babies. Not humans.

    "The calf feeding system is quite fancy, designed to simulate the natural process." Calves don't need "fancy," "simulated" feeding systems…they need the simple feeding systems nature provides for them–their mamas.

    I wonder what you would say about a replica farm that used their cows for beef? Mattresses in their stalls and all.

    Fact still remains that being vegan means not *using* animals for your own gain. No consent means not vegan.

  3. michaelstraus says:

    Hey Erin – we crossed paths years ago when i was tangentially supporting your work via my clients (EO, Organic Bouquet, others I think) … anyways, a quick and tangentially-related comment to your article about Straus Family Creamery — my sisters and I (two of us helped launch SFC and ran marketing for many years) have just transformed our family's Civil War era farm house here in West Marin into a vacation rental — http://www.StrausHomeRanch.com — in case anyone is interested :) Warm regards, Michael Straus

  4. Matthew Search says:

    It’s great that they’re trying to be less exploitative and environmentally destructive.
    This article highlights in interesting issue. Why are some people trying desperately; to cling on to consuming something that has been specifically growing a 2,000lbs cow? To put a substance; intended for a baby cow, into a human that will not grow to above 200lbs, is just twisted.
    How are they impregnated? Are their oppressors exerting non-consensual power these cows sexul organs?

  5. Ginette Hardwick says:

    If you consume dairy products you have no business calling yourself a vegan. Veganism is an ethical position that does not accept the use of ANY animal products. You may enjoy a plant based diet but that doesn’t make you a vegan.
    The dairy industry forcibly impregnates cows to make them produce milk, when the calves are born they are separated from their mothers, the boys are either killed or put in veal crates with an inferior milk substitute for their short horrible lives and are then slaughtered, the girls are either killed or face the same existence as their mothers. When the milk cows are worn out they are slaughtered. NONE of that is vegan.
    Donald Watson (1910-2005), the man who coined the word vegan in 1944.
    “The word “veganism”denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals. ”
    You only get to call yourself a vegan when you stop using animals.

  6. Shaylen Snarski says:

    no vegan would support dairy. There is no such thing as a "cruelty free" dairy farm. Even under the BEST circumstances, the cows are RAPED, the babies are repeatedly taken from them and sent to veal concentration camps so we can steal their milk. The females are CONSTANTLY milked and constantly raped and impregnated so as to constantly be able to be milked and once she stops producing milk, she is sent to slaughter. And what happens to all these "stored calves" able to drink the synthetic milk whenever they want? How do they stop them from drinking from their mothers if there is not a ring piercing in their septum? (as the MOST "humane" farms do). Then they must keep them separated from the mothers, which is what they said. Mother cows and baby cows share a very important bond and all babies need their mothers, that alone is horrifically cruel. And then what? They have to keep breeding for the cows to keep producing the milk. So the population just keeps growing? They live out their days there despite being able to turn a profit? And just keep multiplying? Spoiler: SLAUGHTER HOUSE. What of all the male calves who virtually serve no purpose? Spoiler: VEAL. And how would you like to be unwillingly impregnated and have someone separate you from your baby and constantly milking you so they could sell your bodily fluids? Would it be cruelty free?

  7. judy says:

    Erin Schrode, how much did Strauss family creamery pay you to write this piece?

    and please stay safe in the Middle East.

  8. jWhyman says:

    This is a blatant attempt to market this dairy to vegans by highlighting the positive. There is nothing about what happens to the bull calves nor the cows after their milk production becomes unprofitable. Wise vegans can see this and not take the bait.

  9. Maria says:

    A vegan should know better!! Posing as a vegan and glorifying product of rape/use/abuse & ultimately as we know it slaughter is NOT vegan.

  10. Amy says:

    Wow, there are so many haters on here. I think it’s great that you took the time to go see a dairy farm that does things differently. Yes, veganism is the ideal way to go and in a perfect world people would live harmoniously with animals. But the fact is that not everyone is that compassionate. It sucks. People suck. And some people just don’t care that animals are sentient beings. But at least there is a farm that wants to raise its cows in kinder conditions than the average diary farm. At least someone is trying to make a change in standard farming practices.

    The world doesn’t become vegan overnight. It takes baby steps. And farms that acknowledge the fact that they should treat their animals with at least some respect are a big part of taking those steps. So if someone who is a regular milk drinker reads this and thinks “Hey, maybe I should buy this milk instead of this cheap kind that is from origins I know nothing about,” then I think that is definitely a positive thing.

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