|"Selling direct is one way for small farmers to diversify,” Albert Straus says. "Start small, then test what customers say before you scale up.”
Albert Straus's dairy was organic when organic wasn't cool.
Back in 1994, Straus Family Creamery of tiny Marshall, Calif. (population 50), became the first dairy west of the Mississippi to be certified organic.
Fifteen years later, the 290-cow dairy and creamery are still organic—and the family-owned business is thriving. The creamery takes in 10,000 gal. of milk a day and churns out milk, ice cream, yogurt and butter. Of that, 90% is sold to retail outlets, including Whole Foods Market, across the western U.S. Yearly revenues reach $20 million.
Straus, the company's president, has never stopped looking for ways to channel his passion for the environment. "We make something we believe is a quality product that reflects our values,” he says.
That philosophy creates a unique marketing niche for Straus Family Creamery. "Loyal customers recognize and support our values,” Straus says.
The picture-perfect setting plays a big role. Located six miles apart, the dairy and creamery sit 60 miles north of San Francisco on the coastal hills along famed Highway 1. The Pacific Ocean is a stone's throw away.
The company lets consumers know that antibiotics and added hormones are not included in its operations or those of the two Northern California dairies that supply it with organic milk. The creamery pasteurizes but doesn't homogenize its milk to preserve the grass-fed flavor.
Straus is also serious about sustainable practices. For years, he's operated a methane digester that creates enough energy to power 90% of the farm's needs. He drives a fully electric car and is constructing an electric feed truck for the dairy. The creamery uses no chlorine sanitizers.
The company sells its milk in reusable glass bottles. "Almost no one does that anymore,” Straus says. "It's our signature product. Consumers weren't demanding glass, but they really value it.”
His reputation for quality and consistency has brought Straus prices of $24/cwt. to $26/cwt. this year. That, he says, is one of the benefits of running his own direct-sell dairy business.
"Organic has its own market,” he says. "Prices are not based on state or federal orders. Although we've seen a little flattening of sales recently, our overall prices don't vary much. We can plan and budget and make our farms profitable and viable.”
But there are still challenges. Larger, out-of-state organic brands are aggressively competing in the Northern California dairy category. Still, Straus says his business is up 10% over last year, and he plans to expand this year. He's branching into food service sales and launching soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt for yogurt shops.
"We have no intention of going national or international,” Straus says. "We want to stay local.”
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