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Savoring Sustainability

October 30, 2013
By: Catherine Merlo, Dairy Today Western and Online Editor google + 
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”By adding a value-added product to the dairy, we reinvented our family farm,” says Lynn Stray (second from right). From left are sister Diana Hagan, herdsman Brian Waymire, father Robert Giacomini and sister Jill Basch.   

Environmental vigilance seals this dairy’s sustainability claim and allows it to become an award-winning cheesemaker.

It’s one of California’s most scenic, affluent and environmentally conscious areas: Marin County, located just north of San Francisco, where vigilant citizens actively guard their treasured redwoods, coastal headlands, oyster beds and other wildlife habitat.

Here, along the eastern shore of the long-fingered inlet known as Tomales Bay, Robert Giacomini’s dairy is using conservation measures to sustain its business operations for future generations.

"We want to be as sustainable as we can," Giacomini says. "It’s a viable model for some, not all. It’s a way for us to compete and survive."

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Dairying near Point Reyes Station since 1959, Giacomini developed a business model some 15 years ago that was based on a decision not to be bigger but better.

In the late 1990s, as conventional dairying became increasingly difficult, Giacomini saw the need to diversify by adding a value-added product to the farm’s output. His four daughters agreed to come home from lives and careers elsewhere and join a family business that would now produce artisan cheese with the herd’s milk as a way to keep the dairy productive and sustainable. Today, each of Giacomini’s daughters—Lynn Stray, Diana Hagan, Jill Basch and Karen Howard—oversee a different part of the dairy and cheesemaking operations.

"Our decision to make cheese dramatically changed our way of looking at the dairy business," says Stray, chief operations officer and vice president of sales. "We always had to consider the health of the land and the animals, but now we were also concerned with what the cows ate because it may impart a flavor in the milk and thus into the cheese.

"We had to look at ways to mitigate rising feed costs compared to stable milk prices," Stray says. "We created a brand in the marketplace instead of just one milk truck picking up our daily milk production. That brand, Point Reyes Farmstead, meant we were responsible to the consumer."

The Giacomini dairy now milks 350 cows twice daily on 750 acres of rolling hills along Tomales Bay. The Giacominis downsized the herd from 500 cows a few years ago to take pressure off the land. Today, the dairy produces 3,000 gal. of milk a day, ranking fourth among the North Bay DHIA’s high herds with a 27,270 lb. per cow energy-corrected milk production. Humane animal care is high on the dairy’s list of priorities.

Installed in 2009, the dairy’s methane digester generates power for the milking parlor and the creamery, which totals 65% of the farm’s energy needs. Dried manure is used for cow bedding and fertilizing the land.

The digester’s ability to break down bacteria in wastewater allows maximum uptake by plants when the liquid is applied to pastureland. Rotational grazing helps keep grass and soil healthy.

The farm, which produces about 35% of its feed supply, uses a no-till drill for planting, which means less soil erosion, less runoff and more water infiltration. The dairy’s water-quality program recycles the water used in sanitizing the creamery for irrigation.

The dairy also flushes its barn stalls with water that’s gravity-fed from a stock pond above the barns. The Giacominis also implemented a restoration project, which includes planting trees near stock ponds and creeks to eliminate erosion and runoff.

About 70% of the milk from the Giacominis’ cheesemaking process ends up as whey. Mostly water, whey is high in proteins and minerals.

"Most creameries have to haul their whey off the farm or they process it into powder for another revenue source," Stray says. "Smaller dairies like ours are able to use it as feed for the cows. Whey replaces 3 lb. of corn per cow per day. Any extra whey not used as feed is added to the methane digester, adding more bioactivity to the wastewater."

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FEATURED IN: Dairy Today - November 2013

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