Learning Where My Food Comes From: A Field Trip to Straus Dairy Farm
After reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and seeing the film, Food Inc., I added the task “Visit farms and ranches where my food comes from” to my ongoing, never-ending “To Do” list. And it sat there. And sat there. Until a couple of incidents spurred me to get serious. First, reading about the very sad fate of male chicks to which I have been inadvertently contributing even though I buy Certified Humane eggs and second, seeing how much fun Colin Beavan had visiting a local farm in the film No Impact Man.
How many of us really understand how our food is produced? Labels on meat and dairy products are full of pictures of happy animals in beautiful rustic settings with plenty of space to roam and be free. But is that the truth? And how can we make decisions about what food products are healthy, sustainable, and in line with our values if we don’t have complete information and may not even know what our values are?
So yesterday, I rented a Zip Car and took a trip to Straus Family Creamery and organic dairy farm in Western Marin County to visit the cows that produce my milk and the humans who package and ship it to me.
The Straus family has owned and operated this dairy farm since 1941, and it became the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River in 1994. In that year, Albert Straus opened the creamery, which produces milk, yogurt, butter, and probably the best ice cream EVER. But I had come to see the cows, find out how they are treated and learn how a dairy farm operates.
The first thing I noticed driving up to the farm were groups of cows hanging out and grazing in wide open spaces. What a beautiful place to live, whether you’re a cow or a human, no?
In fact, these cows spend approximately nine months of the year outdoors, grazing and roaming. They eat the local grass, of course, but in this area, the grass is not sufficient year-round to support all the cows, so their diet is supplemented with mixtures of organic grains such as flax, oats, alfalfa, and yes… some corn. Contrary to Pollan’s assertion that corn is no good for cows, Albert Straus believes that in moderation, it can be a healthy component of a balanced diet.
For Straus, the main trouble with corn is the fact that so much of it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And while organic corn and grains of all kinds are not allowed to contain GMO’s, there is actually no mechanism in place to test for them. So our organic foods may not be as GMO-free as we think. That’s why Albert Straus took it upon himself to set up requirements for all his suppliers. They must test and ensure that the feed grains they supply are free of GMOs before they are delivered to Straus.
Straus’s cows are milked three times per day, more often than the industry standard of twice a day. The extra milking allows Straus workers to handle the cows more often and notice any unhealthy signs sooner. Unfortunately, I didn’t happen to arrive for milking time. I would have liked to have seen this operation in progress.
This lady is very, very pregnant. In fact, she’s about 24-hours away from giving birth. And she’s NOT in a good mood.
Across from the pregnant cows were hutches of baby cows. All the cows on Straus’s farm are born and raised here. It is a closed herd… no outside animals are brought in. Sadly, the babies are removed from the mothers at birth and kept in individual pens separate from each other. They are bottle-fed by humans and never have a chance to suckle from their mothers. Why? So that each calf is ensured a standard diet without competition or possible contagion from others. It’s a fact of life of the dairy business. Each of these calves takes nine months to gestate, just like human babies, and the dairy farmer wants to be certain that the investment will pay off and that the cows will be as physically healthy as possible.
What about the male calves? Some of them are kept on the farm for breeding purposes. Most, however, are auctioned off and will become meat. When asked if any of them will become veal, our guide Kristin told us that veal is not raised in this area and it would be very unlikely that a veal rancher would come all the way from the Central Valley to buy calves from Straus. And while many of the boys will will probably be bought by organic meat farmers, that is not guaranteed.
The males who are allowed to remain on the farm will spend their time hanging out with a group of females, called a “string,” or perhaps a better term would be “harem.” They breed the old fashioned way… 70% of the time. Artificial insemination is reserved for situations in which the old fashioned method doesn’t work for some reason. Ideally, each cow will give birth once every 369 days.
The cows rest and find shelter in the barn, spending almost all of their time here during the winter months.
As you can see, they produce a lot of poop. In fact, each animal produces 120 pounds of solid and liquid waste per day! That is a lot of greenhouse gas-producing methane. Waste dropped in the fields is left as organic compost. But waste from the upper barn area has another purpose. Albert Straus has devised a method for capturing the methane from poop, keeping it out of the atmosphere and using it to power his farm. Each day, water is released from a silo, and powered by gravity, washes all that poop into a pond below.
The pond is covered with a tarp, which captures the methane gas and feeds it through a tube into a generator. The farm generates 90% of all it’s electricity needs from cow poop. And the remaining solids are composted.
In fact, Straus seems to be doing everything it can to ensure that its business is environmentally sustainable. So what about the milk products themselves? All that packaging, for example…
As many in the Bay Area know, Straus bottles its milk in returnable glass bottles, charging a deposit which is refunded to the customer when the bottle is returned to the store.
Each bottle, whether new or returned, is run through the bottle washing machine. This machine, which originally used 12 gallons of water per minute, has been engineered so that it now only goes through one half gallon per minute. The cleaning solution is hydrogen peroxide, which breaks back down into water with no chemical by-products.
In fact, all the water at the Straus Creamery is recycled… whether the water for washing bottles or the water removed from the milk solids. Any leftover waste water that can’t be recycled is delivered to the digester at the dairy farm to generate power.
But let’s get back to packaging. The Straus bottle is glass. But the cap is non-recyclable plastic. And since some stores refuse to deal with taking back glass bottles, Straus also bottles some of its milk in plastic jugs. The company is working very hard to find plastic-free alternatives. The focus at the moment is on a compostable container made from recycled cardboard. Unfortunately, it will probably be lined with some kind of plastic, although that component is still in development.
Straus is not willing to line its containers with compostable corn-based plastic for the same reason that it rarely feeds corn to its animals — GMOs. Since there is no guarantee that PLA or other corn-based resins are GMO-free, Straus is not willing to use that product.
The company is looking at a compostable alternative for its yogurt containers as well. For now, they are all plastic because the company does not have the resources or space to put in the facilities for returnable glass yogurt containers.
But here is what makes Straus plastic-packaged yogurt different from other yogurts packaged in plastic. The yogurt is vat set. Most yogurt companies add the hot milk and culture directly to each plastic yogurt container. And as many of us know, heat causes plastics to break down and leach whatever chemicals they might contain into our food. Straus sets its yogurt in a heated stainless steel vat. Once the yogurt reaches the correct PH, the vat is cooled down so that the yogurt is no longer hot when it’s poured into plastic containers. This procedure helps prevent chemical leaching from the plastic, but it doesn’t address the waste issue. So Straus continues to look for alternatives.
Of course, our favorite Straus product of all is the ice cream. Organic. Hormone-free. Delicious. But again, a lot of packaging, which, along with the high calorie content, is one reason I try to limit its presence in my house as much as possible.
So, what did I learn by visiting this farm? I learned that some businesses really are committed to sustainable agriculture and business practices but that we still have a way to go. I also learned that as well as the animals are treated, there will always be a limit to how much quality of life and freedom they can have. Business is business. This baby cow (below) grabbed my hand in its mouth and sucked and sucked. Was this because it craves what it can never have from its mother? I don’t know. But I am glad to understand the reality of a cow’s life on the farm and the true cost of the milk I drink. I will not spill it happily, and I might even cry over it a little bit.
We buy Strauss in bottles here in Humboldt Co, and I’m about to buy their cream to make clotted cream. Such a delicious dish, and hardly known in this country. Super easy.
You could cry about it, or you could not drink cow’s milk? It’s really so easy. There are so many fantastic alternatives.
Great write up! Another farm you should visit is Long Dream Farm in Lincoln, California. You will see cows and calves living together. The babies get to stay with the mamma cows. They give tours Sunday mornings. Definitely worth a trip. Every cow has a name and it is a slaughter free farm. They do not sell any of their cows. They make and sell butter, yogurt, ice cream and cheeses!
Thanks for sharing your trip with us!!
I love that they recover the biogas from cows poop!! Another good reason for me to continue buying Strauss milk.
Back in France I worked on several biogas projects with farmers, to recover the biogas and use the liquid and solid waste as compost. There’s a huge potential, it’s a fantastic source of renewable energy, it’s too bad that these “technologies” are not that common in the US.
I don’t know why we do this to cows : ( poor things.
I want to learn how to make almond milk ^_^
Our family is very excited about getting away from chemicals in all areas of our lives and I really appreciate tips on ways to do that whenever and wherever I find them. It was mentioned that it’s a good practice to buy things from the bulk bins and put them in our own containers. However, aren’t those “bins” made of plastic, as well? Also, are the tubes that milk the cows made of some sort of plastic?
A quick and tangentially-related comment — my sisters and I (two of us helped launch Straus Family Creamery and ran marketing for many years) have just transformed our family’s Civil War era farm house into a vacation rental — http://straushomeranch.com/ — in case anyone is interested :) Warm regards, Michael Straus
A quick and tangentially-related comment — my sisters
This is great research. Thanks for your time. I discovered Straus recently, and I love their milk and ice cream. I haven’t tried any other products yet because I have to drive 40 miles for the milk and 180 miles for the ice cream. I visit my mom at the same time. :)
Say NO to GMO. Trying to avoid gmo, high fructose corn syrup, etc. helps reduce my food consumption.
I am able to buy my yoghurt in glass containers. Perhaps you could suggest this to the dairy. Actually thinking about it I can get kefir, sour cream, and cream in glass.
Great blog. I use http://whereismymilkfrom.com to find out what dairy my milk comes from.
Great article! Thanks… We love Strauss sustainable practices. Just a note on the caps of the milk bottles: they are #4 recyclable, and so is the ring around the cap. #1 or #2 would have been more easily recyclable, but let’s hope that they find non-plastic alternative alltogether soon.
I feel good about eating something that you know is freshly done.
I wish I could be back to the provinces soon where they serve me real, fresh cow’s milk! It’s just so tasty and healthy!
Loved this post Beth! Thanks for sharing your field trip with us! :)
Thanks for your post! I LOVE Straus products. The milk is so yummy and the yogurt is like no other! Yogurt is one thing that I continue to buy in plastic. I use the containers to get bulk items. The Staus yogurt makes fabulous raita. Try it out.
There was a story last month on NPR’s Living on Earth about using anaerobic digestion at dairies to produce electricity. Unfortunately, it’s tough to do it here in the Central Valley because of the tough air quality regulations. http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.html?programID=09-P13-00037#feature3
I’m glad that the company is doing its best. I think that if more companies did that we would certainly be better off than we are now.
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t many good alternatives to plastic. Reading this, I’m not sure what Straus could do differently. It’s a really good example of weighing all of the options when none of them are really all that appealing.
Wow, I learned a lot from your experience. I never even considered the connection between compostible corn-based plastic and GMO corn. Something I will be thinking about from now on…
Thank you for taking this field trip and reporting to those of us who are allergic to those smells along with grass, trees, dust mold & ragweed!. I wish Strauss was closer and it IS sad that calves are seperated from their mothers @ birth but for those who were brought up on beef this farm represents all that is good. Please keep up the terrific updates.
Seeing the realities in farming and the challenging steps to plastic-free packaging, ie milk bottle tops, gives the consumer better insight. In pre-plastic times tin-foil caps were standard, thought not bird proof. With proper recycling of aluminium waste and avoidance of plastic/aluminium combinations there should be enough for increased usage of the valuable metal.
Great post. Baby cow nom nom noms ur fingurs. so cute!
Great post. I’m reading Righteous Porkchop and am at the part about dairy farms so reading this was timely. One of the lines in the book is that veal is a by product of milk as the dairy cows have to have a calf each year and the baby males are often sold for veal. I didn’t know that and grew up right here in dairy country. Per some of the stories in the book the dairy cows and calves at Strauss are living at the Ritz. It likely doesn’t get any better than that. As to their ice cream, the mint chocolate chip is my favorite. I have to stay away from it or I’ll eat the entire container. I forgot to say Righteous Porkchop is a good read about where industrial meat comes from.
Ashlyn – part of the problem with GMO’s goes beyond the actual food itself. ConAg and others are lobbying Congress right now to have control over ALL SEED that comes from their particular GMO strains, claiming intellectual property rights. The idea that farmers in developing countries cannot save and use seed from year to year sets some people’s hair on end. We think there is a world food problem now, imagine if all those farmers can no longer control their seeds. Read this post on Wikipedia — scroll about halfway down: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food
It is not all beneficial. Called Frankenfood by some, there are questions about the long term effects of playing with Mother nature this way. While we have always done it with breeding and cross pollinating, this is manipulation on an extreme level and deserves much more scrutiny than has been given.
“The Other Beth Terry”
“And everything is designed to make the crop need more and more agrotoxics and fertilizers each year.”
That is incorrect, GM crops are actually designed to need LESS chemicals like pesticides etc than “organic” foods.
Also, the calf was sucking on your fingers because that is what calves DO, they pretty much attempt to suckle anything that will stay still long enough, whether mama cow is around or not =)
This is very interesting. The subject of GMOs is very interesting, too.
GMOs have disadvantages: many crops require the intensive use of dangerous agrotoxics, which have horrible consequences in the environment. To grow GMOs you have to buy the seeds and the agrotoxics from a company who owns them. However, GMOs have also made it possible to feed the growing world’s population (I say *possible*, but millions still die of starvation because the food is divided unequally and a huge amount of the crops are destined to feed cattle). And while I’m not a huge fan of them and would rather eat from non GMO crops, I think we have to admit they have come to stay, and try to turn them into friends rather than enemies. What I mean by this, is that we need to change the purpose for which GMOs are created. Right now they’re created simply to get money. GMOs allow a farmer to have a bigger crop. So he buys the GMO seeds, the agrotoxics (herbicides, insecticides, etc) and the fertilizers from a company like Monsanto. And everything is designed to make the crop need more and more agrotoxics and fertilizers each year. The farmer needs to buy the seeds each year too.
Anyway, I still think GMOs are necessary to feed our huge population (I don’t think there is enough land suitable for farming if we do it the organic way), but a different kind of them. GMOs should be designed to need less toxic products and artificial fertilizers, to be safer, and they shouldn’t be property of one company; anyone should have access to them.
Finally, one comment about this post: Beth, will you dare to go where your meat comes from? If milk made you cry… I don’t know how you’d handle that. (I certainly couldn’t, so I became a vegetarian).
Great post! That ice cream looks so yummy… and I didn’t know that about the hot yogurt in the containers.
This was a great report, but I’m wondering about the emphasis and insistence on staying away from GM corn. Genetically modified agricultural products is one of the greatest breakthroughs of modern science, and allows us to do so much more with less resources and less land. I do not understand the fear and avoidance of them when they are so useful and not a threat to the nutritional value, and a benefit to the environment.
This is GREAT. I lived on and around farms as a kid. I love to hear how progressive this farmer is — not only is he saving the planet, he’s saving money and energy costs. Brilliant.
Now, if we could just find the woman who wrote this to a Newspaper not too long ago: “To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you. You ought to go to the store and buy the meat that was made there, where no animals were harmed.”
ahh, American Education…
Personally, I think every kid should spend a little school time at a farm like this. It would be a great way to continue the legacy created by Strauss Farms.
Glad you went,
Another comprehensive report from the BNN (Beth News Network)! It left me wondering what the prices of the Straus products are compared to brand X or the store brands where you shop.
By the way, I notice more and more comment postings appearing on blogs like the first one here that do nothing but indicate (apparently) that a posting has been made on Twitter. Is there any way to filter out such posts so that those of us who want to read what folks have to say don’t have to scroll through them to find the real comments?
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit, learn, and report back to the world about stuff like this. Most people (myself included) are so detached from food production processes. It’s an issue I often wonder about, but it never even made it to my to-do list! This post is especially timely for me, as it comes on the heels of a story I read just recently in the NYT about beef safety and e. coli: http://bit.ly/uMEe7
Personally visiting sources of all our foods either becomes a full-time job or severely limits our dietary choices. However, if the burden could be spread out among a network of people who could visit producer factories and farms… Do you know if there is an on-line repository for information like this? It would be interesting to compile these kinds of data into a central database, with tools for searching by product type, brand, maybe ratings on various scales (animal treatment, organic content, packaging, etc.), local availability, etc., authored by trusted reviewers (the hard part, I bet). The more people know about companies that are doing their best to conduct business responsibly, the easier it becomes to funnel $’s to them and support their practices, and the more pressure applied to business who don’t.
I am happy to learn that Straus products are available at several stores close to home, so I’ll be looking into them!
Thanks again –