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