By Hillary Grant
Our love affair began a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
Laden with canvas bags of fresh fruit, veggies and raw honey from the farmer’s market in Templeton, my husband and I were tramping back to our car a few blocks away. On an impulse, we decided to check out Nature’s Touch, the cozy organic market, nursery and herb garden located just off the main drag.
Owner Melanie Blankenship was chatting with regulars behind her counter while I watched an interesting exchange: in under five minutes, three shoppers had returned empty glass milk bottles for deposits. The idea of any sort of dairy minus plastic and cardboard containers seemed novel enough, but as the last customer was leaving,
I had to speak up.
“That milk must be pretty good.”
She smiled. “Once you try it, you’ll never be able to go back!”
Hmmm, who made this stuff, anyway?
I eyed Melanie’s tiny refrigeration unit and saw maple yogurt; bottled whipping cream, quarts and half-gallons of milk; European style butter, Dutch chocolate ice cream and – be still my heart! — authentic eggnog.
All were produced by the Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, which, the bottles said, is the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi, uses a methane digester to eliminate its cows’ greenhouse gas emissions, and never treats any cattle with hormones or antibiotics, including bovine growth hormone (rBGH). While the $5.75 price tag for a single half-gallon of milk seemed steep, I did some quick math: one mass-produced supermarket carton is just a few dollars less. (The milk may also be more competitively priced in larger grocery stores.) In other words, cut out that fancy Starbucks beverage one morning per week and you’ll easily made up the difference.
None of these facts meant much once I tasted Straus milk.
With its thick cream settling at the top, pale yellow cast and swirling nuggets of butterfat, this was the best milk I had ever had in my life.
“I can’t believe it! It’s exactly like the farm milk we used to get from the Whetmore’s dairy!” exclaimed my husband, who grew up in northeastern Ohio on an apple orchard, where his family bartered fruit for milk products a few fields away. “I thought this kind of milk was lost forever,” he said.
It almost was.
It was l990 and owner Albert Straus remembers that his coastal California neighbors thought he was nuts for wanting to turn the small 50-year-old family farm into an organic operation – one that would also boast minimal pasteurization and environmentally friendly glass bottles.
What so many naysayers were proclaiming, says Straus, “Didn’t matter to me. Milk pricing had been stagnant for years and the costs kept rising. We knew we needed to do something different.”
Besides, Straus says that by this time, he had been running the creamery – founded in l941 by dad Bill with 23 cows all named after relatives and friends – “outside the box” anyway.
A l977 Cal Poly graduate in diary science, Straus had already experimented with unusual feeds such as tofu, sake and cereal waste on his Holstein and Jersey herd.
Straus had also implemented a no-plowing, no-herbicide planting policy. “So when someone approached me about producing organic milk for ice cream, I got really excited about the whole idea.”
It took more than three years after that to make the dairy an officially organic one, and in that time, some early Straus products have fallen by the wayside. This short list includes yogurt smoothies (Straus lost six dollars with every case); chocolate milk and buttermilk (sales couldn’t support either product), and cheese (production requires an inordinate amount of milk).
Despite those initial growing pains, public relations coordinator Kristin Heath says she feels privileged to be a member of this unique dairy. “It’s so important to be part of the change happening in the natural food industry,” she says. “Here’s a place that’s founded on simple, ecologically responsible practices, something that makes my job very rewarding.”
As for me? I’m with Albert Straus, who, working on 660 acres alongside 50 committed employees and 300 vegetarian cows, declares that since his products are made with the highest quality milk, least processing and no additives or preservatives, “You can taste the difference.”
Have I mentioned the organic raspberry ice cream?
Visit www.strausfamilycreamery.com for more information on the Straus dairy, including where to buy Straus products in SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.