By Michael Straus
Straus Family Creamery recently turned 17, and I started thinking back to those crazy times.
In 1989, my older brother Albert, who’d been managing the farm and doing some pretty innovative things — including feeding our cows leftovers from a local sake factory … but that’s another story — decided to convert the farm to organic. He wanted to bottle his own milk, make ice cream, and make enough money to support the farm without having to either grow bigger (one major trend) or go out of business (the other major trend). California had already lost 90% of all dairies – from 20,000 in 1940 when our dad starting farming, to 2,000 in the late 1980s.
That year our farm became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi.
Fast forward four years, to 1993, when Albert decided we needed to take all of that milk and start bottling it.
But as we had only managed to raise a tiny fraction of the capital required to build our own factory and, as the bills were piling up – it’s expensive to convert an entire farm to organic – Albert had to move fast. He decided to convert an existing building at the former Synanon ranch in in our sleepy town of Marshall, CA, where the town sign has always read (and still does to this day) "Marshall, Pop 50, Elev 15."
Back then, I was working at Jewish Vocational Services in San Francisco, as a job counselor for newly arrived émigrés from the (newly) former Soviet Union. I had recently returned from spending a year in Israel (during the first Gulf War), trying to prove that I could hold down a normal, non-cow-milking or shit-shoveling gig. After that, I planned to travel the world!
One evening, Albert called, asking if I could help. He was under a lot of stress, and we needed to get that factory up and running NOW. The future of the farm depended on it. My parents, ever supportive, were totally flipping out.
Of course, I said yes.
There’s a scene from Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life that has always haunted me … the one in which he’s about to board a train to travel the globe and, at the last possible moment, decides to stay in Bedford Falls to help save the family business.
The cult of milk
Synanon was a drug/alcohol rehab community-turned-cult with about 3,000 members living on three ranches. Synanon had been a staple, if odd, part of our community until it ran into some difficulties, including for carrying weapons, beating up members who attempted to leave, filing for tax-exempt status as a religion and, oh yeah, putting a de-rattled rattlesnake into the mailbox of TIME Magazine’s attorney in Los Angeles. The local weekly newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for its reporting on Synanon, and eventually the story was turned into a made-for-TV movie on NBC.
At one of their mostly-derelict ranches, later known as S/2, there were a number of unused buildings, including their old commercial kitchen. It was soon to become home to Straus Family Creamery, but not before some tidying up. My friend Loci, who I’d met on our Israel trip a few years earlier, volunteered to help, and when we stepped into that building, it was the first time anyone had been inside for a decade.
As I walked into the main part of the office area, I bashed my head on a huge metal crossbeam that some idiot had placed so low that you couldn’t help but smack your forehead. Chuck, the founder of Synanon, had also bashed his head on this beam on his initial inspection of the then-new building, a couple of decades earlier. He was SO pissed that he demanded that whoever was responsible for the crappy, brain-rattling design must have his head shaved and made as an example to all the other community members. That idiot, as it turns out, was Chuck’s son. Soon, all Synanon men shaved their heads in solidarity. Not too long later, so did the women.
Three months and a lot of bashed heads later, this became the home of our creamery.
Meanwhile, the neighboring farmers thought we were nuts. Oh, they wished us well, but here we were – Democrats, environmentalists, Jews (pretty much the definition of ‘outsiders’ in a very conservative community) doing something totally nuts. Hell, my sister Vivien and I still joke to this day that not only did we barely know what "organic" was, but we had no idea of the difference between pasteurization and homogenization … and we were the ones who ended up handling all the marketing!
Opening day had been delayed, repeatedly — equipment hadn’t arrived, or had broken, or various regulatory agencies were fighting to shut us down before we even opened. Finally, on February 4, 1994, around 10 p.m., we got started.
We sat around in the upstairs "office" – really just a couple of odd desks, chairs and phones that my friend Ami and I had found at a dot.com auction in SF. Michael Wiener, true old-world craftsman and family friend who had started the creamery with my brother, and his entire clan, all of us Strauses, and many of the Chase family were there, drinking endless cups of coffee and sharing pastries from the Tomales Bakery.
None of us could believe that the crap equipment my brother had rounded up would ever work, not least of which was the ancient, rusted-out bottle-washing device which, if it had had just a couple more gerbils living inside, would have made a perfect Rube Goldberg specimen. Albert had found it slowly decaying in the blackberry brambles behind a barn in Eugene, Oregon, where Sue Kesey, ex-wife of Ken One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Kesey, was (and still is) running her Nancy’s Yogurt factory.
The first thing to break was the main pasteurization unit. Instead of processing all of the milk in a continuous flow in just a couple of hours, we had to use the back-up unit, which pasteurized milk in tiny batches, each of which took about four hours, and we had to do at least three batches.
Finally, the first batch of milk had been pasteurized and cooled enough to bottle … lift off!
The moment of truth: we hit the power switches for the bottle washer and conveyor belt. Milk started flowing through the stainless steel pipes into the bottle-filling device (converted from filling wine bottles in a past life). The bottles started coming out of the bottle washer, onto the conveyor belt, and …
CRASH! One, then another … CRASH!
Soon, dozens of beautiful, new glass bottles were crashing to the floor. It had never occurred to us to install guide rails on the conveyor.
Then suddenly, after not even one bottle had been successfully filled … CLUNK. The bottle washer suddenly just stopped.
We were like CalTrans — a bunch of us, both adults and little kids – standing around, looking at the damn thing, without a clue about how to fix it.
We called Auto Dan, the mobile mechanic from Tomales who was half Dr. Frankenstein and half McGyver.
Half an hour later, tired and bleary-eyed from having been woken up in the middle of the night, he looks at the machine for all of maybe a minute, runs back out to his mechanic’s truck, and comes roaring back in with a massive sledgehammer. He hammered some obscure lever, pressed the power button and SHAZAM! we were up and running again.
With two or three of us now standing guard next to the conveyor belt to prevent more precious bottles from untimely death, the bottles headed into the filling equipment. Kind of.
The wheels that guided the bottles had gotten off-track. Easily fixed. But then the device that places the cap onto the newly filled bottle was mis-aligned, tossing caps (the old, original foil caps with cardboard centers) onto the floor, no longer ‘food grade’ so soon swept up and tossed out. Many more were clamped onto the bottles too tightly, causing them to leak.
New horizons for organic dairy
Finally, filled bottles, properly capped, slid down the conveyor to my 62-year-old mom, who was standing by to hand-stamp ‘Use-by’ expiration dates on every bottle, as that machine had broken, too.
Cases were stacked five high to be wheeled on our lone handtruck to the walk-in cooler. The handtruck, that is, with one flat wheel. And the ramp to the walk-in was so steep that the handtruck kept slipping, and crashing bottles and crates to the ground; the walk-in door was so small that we could barely get in and out.
The San Francisco Chronicle that day (alas, their online archives seem to end in 1995) featured a photo of our milk truck on its maiden voyage from our dairy (where the cows get milked), up the Marshall/Petaluma Road (aka The Wall to local bicyclists) to the factory … being towed by one of our massive tractors.
Our first bottles of nonfat milk for which we soon became famous, were often partially filled with delicious cream, as the centrifugal separator was constantly mis-assembled in those early days.
Our first distributor – the folks who buy the milk, then sell and distribute it stores and restaurants – was Dairy Delivery. They had asked to arrive at 7 am to pick up their order, so that they could deliver on time to our first customers, who included Real Foods, Back to Basics, Living Foods, Inner Sunset Cooperative (all, unfortunately, RIP – the market has changed a lot since those early days). They waited for hours, probably until noon, before we were able to load them up.
At the time, organic milk was still nearly unknown, even in natural food stores. Horizon was still a two-bit start-up, processing milk in Wisconsin and shipping to California; by the time it got on the shelves, it was already nearly sour.
Three days later, everything changed for Straus Family Creamery, the fledgling organic dairy industry, and the organic market overall: on February 7, 1994, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved, in a storm of controversy, the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH, aka rBST).
The resulting lawsuits (and fear of same) temporarily forced regulators to force us to place little tiny blank white labels on every bottle, covering up the statement “We don’t use rBGH,” or something along those lines – even though, as a certified organic dairy, we weren’t even allowed to use the stuff. We didn’t know it then, but it was the ensuing public outrage over agribusiness screwing with something as pure as milk that helped catapult organics into the mainstream.
And that's how the crazy ride began for Straus Family Creamery, which now sells milk, yogurt, butter, ice cream, and more in hundreds of stores and restaurants across the country.
In retrospect, I had my Jimmy Stewart moment … working closely with my family, I had helped save the family farm.
And now, nearly two decades later, I’m traveling the world!
Michael Straus has worked for nearly 20 years in sustainable food and agriculture and environmental issues. After successfully launching his family’s pioneering Straus Family Creamery organic dairy, Michael started Straus Communications (one the first "green" PR agencies), produced the Beyond Organic radio show, and is currently a contributing editor for Reuter’s syndicated eco-travel site, www.GreenTravelerGuides.com. He’s been traveling in Asia for the past year, blogging at www.MichaelStraus.org; you can reach him at Mich...@StrausCom.com.