The evening commenced with a networking session including wine, beer and light appetizers provided by the JCC. After the featured presentation, there was cheese, wine and cider tasting with additional nibbles provided by Justice Grace Winery, Hobo Wine Company, Tilted Shed Ciderworks and Bi-Rite Market cheese accoutrements
Tara Duggan, SF Chronicle food writer
Vivien Straus, Straus Family Creamery
Jill Giacomini, Basch Giacomini Dairy and Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company
Anna Hancock, Pugs Leap and White Whale Farm
The Straus family dairy farm started out small in the early 1940s with 23 Jersey cows. Straus Family Creamery (still family owned and operated) was founded in 1994. It is known for innovative farming practices and small-scale artisan dairy production of the highest quality, minimally processed, organic from the beginning – celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Their products are made from organic milk supplied by a handful of family farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties, including the Straus family dairy. Straus Family Creamery sustains collaborative relationships with dairy farmers, offering stable prices and predictability in what is otherwise a volatile marketplace. Straus distributed nationally from the beginning but 60% of production is sold here in California. They do not make cheese.
Vivien left the farm to become an actress, but when her brother opened the Creamery she moved back and began marketing for the Creamery (and at Cowgirl Creamery for 8 years).
She created the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map and the Cheese Trail smart phone app, covering all of California. She also presents one woman performance pieces related to her experience and cheese heritage. Dairy Heiress will be the new one.
Straus has been a pioneer since its inception, working to stabilize small family farming, bringing to light the true price of farm practices on small farms while maintaining pasture fed cows rather than following the trend toward larger dairies that purchased feed, adding chemicals and technology. The large scale practices led to changes in the price structure of milk, and put pressure on smaller farms, but Straus works to stabilize prices through their relationships with small dairy farmers.
Vivien’s mom, Ellen, was a founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in the early 1970s, to counter development plans that would have eliminated many family farms. It is a non profit that buys land so that farmers get a chunk of money if they agree to stay in agriculture, taxes are lower and it preserves the land as open space in perpetuity so that it cannot be sold for non agricultural use – and it pays the inheritance tax so that children don’t lose the land to taxes when their parents die, and it buys out siblings who want to leave the land. The easement rights are sold so that money can be reinvested in the business. “MALT has succeeded in permanently preserving more than 44,100 acres of farmland on 68 family farms and ranches that might otherwise have been sold or developed. MALT was the first agricultural land trust in the nation and serves as an inspiration and model for many other land trusts which have been created since.”
Straus projects that the cost of feed will double due to the drought. They have countered the water challenge with above ground storage ponds and many spring wells, that help with sanitation, and they reuse water to heat milk, and for sanitation.
Jill Giacomini Basch
Bob and Dean Giacomini bought the present farm (between Pt. Reyes and Marshall) in 1959.
Starting with 150 cows, the herd grew to 500+ by the mid 1990s. Jill and her 3 sisters were not involved in the farm as kids, and were encouraged to find other interests, so left the farm to pursue varied business careers – but then came back to farm to realize the dream of making cheese from their cows’ milk. 70% of cheese makers use milk from their own dairy. The price of milk is set elsewhere, and varies every 2 months. It often does not cover costs of production, so adding value by transforming it into cheese makes a better living possible.
The sisters each contributed business perspectives in evaluating various possibilities as to the type of cheese to focus upon. In choosing the type of cheeses to make, aged cheese means locking up 5-6 months before you know the cheese will be good. There were few blue cheeses available, mostly imported, with new tariffs in place for Italy and France, and they would be the only farmstead with a made in California blue. They threw away lots 1 and 2 but thereafter the cheese was good, fulfilling the dream in 2000. They learned that Making a blue cheese is very difficult: the mold is airborne inside the facility, so it is challenging to making a non-blue inside the same facility requires
The second was Toma, a Havarti-like cheese with butter flavor and a tang in the back of the throat related to the grass the cows eat. Their cheeses celebrate the range of flavors and tastes throughout the year, living products that reflect the terroir.
Jill encouraged the staff of trade buyers to visit, tour the farm, taste and learn about the cheeses, but they had no place for consumers to visit, so she established The Fork as a culinary education center: classes, farms tours, tastings, dinners and other food events. https://www.pointreyescheese.com/thefork They publish a quarterly calendar listing events, and also do private parties with customized experiences.
Anna grew up in San Francisco, and had a lot of animals. She wanted to be a lawyer or a large animal vet. She went to law school, then a year later found a farm to buy in Petaluma – White Whale Farm. She initially thought a goat dairy would be more financially stable (not!). She needed 120 goats to sustain the dairy and make cheese (she would need 500 if she were just selling goats’ milk). Then she met the Pugs Leap owners who were moving to Australia, who initiated her into goat cheese making.
She shuttled back and forth, transporting the milk from Healdsburg to her farm, finding many challenges. The jostling of transportation, difference in climate and different milk produced a different outcome with the same recipe, which she tweaked for a year.
She began making chevre, with the goats milked on Monday, pasteurized Tuesday, and into stores on Thursday. Samson, a new tomme style goat milk raw cheese named after their 200 pound dog is in process. She found a herd manager, improved genetics, and now has a cheesemaker, as her passion is in the animals, but she is the backup for everything. There are prodigious amounts of whey left over in making the cheese, maybe more when temperatures are higher Anna gives it to her pigs, thinks maybe you can make ricotta from it.
Anna is to start tours soon. These experiences at the farm change the tasting experience forever, especially for kids. She will have a webpage up in June with tour dates, probably the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month.
Miscellaneous discussion points:
-Marin County has 81 cows per acre,
-It is now more common to work with dairy products from different animals, including mixing milks in a cheese, and now water buffalo is used as well. Milk is being shared between cheesemakers.
-Jersey cows produce milk higher in butterfat. Holsteins are the most common and also makes great cheese
-Challenges faced by cheesemakers include transportation and the cost of feed. The animals graze half the year but when fields turn golden farmers must buy feed. Cows eat grass down in place, but goats like to browse, so goat farmers have to buy alfalfa and hay.
-There are significant issues with butter, whey and manure that farmers are working on.
-Finding good labor and loyal employees that will come to a rural area has led to offering meals during working shifts, helping with housing, etc.
-Newer cheesemakers face challenges in finding entry into farmers’ markets and distributors, though the latter have been supportive and receptive to new cheeses and changes in them. Telling stories helped.
-Recommended: Planet Cheese blog by Janet Fletcher
-We can help by asking at cheese stores which cheeses are local so that stores will carry them.
-The Cheese of Choice Coalition is fighting to keep raw milk cheeses available.
http://www.cheeseofchoice.org/ – !hot-topics/c23f0
-Why does Northern California have so many wonderful cheeses? It is the only part of the state
that still has small farms infrastructure, pasture land – and innovative people!
Written by Karen Urbanek