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Green Cheese: Straus Family Creamery

Sustainability can be a problem at many dairies, but in this blog series intern Alicia gets the deets on some eco-friendly cheesemakers from across the map. Find out what makes each cheese green, and enter the weekly contest for a chance to win an issue of culture. Congrats to last week’s contest winner, Angel W.! 

Poop can be a serious hazard on a dairy. A single cow can produce 120 pounds of manure a day, equal to what 20 to 40 humans might produce in the same time period. Multiply that by a few hundred or even a few thousand cows and it quickly adds up to a very large, very dirty, dilemma.

Most farms collect all this manure into holding ponds that are emptied once or twice a year. The problem? Decomposing waste can pollute the air and create serious health and environmental dangers. Holding ponds can cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses like asthma. They emit pollutants like ammonia which can contribute to smog. And – perhaps most importantly – animal waste releases methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming.

Lucky for all of us, some dairies  are doing their part to lessen the effects of the poop problem. One such dairy is the Straus Family Creamery, based in Marshall, California. Albert Straus, creamery owner and president, has long been interested in sustainable and natural living. In 1994, Straus became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi. Instead of adding more cows to their herd, they partner with nearby organic dairies to keep their cow per acre ratio as low as possible. They save waste water from the creamery for reuse at the dairy and their milk and cream products are sold in reusable recycled-glass bottles. And in 2000, Straus installed a methane digester at his dairy after collecting funding from the state.

“Since the 70’s, I’ve looked into putting a digester in,” says Straus. What does a  digester do? Twice a day, the dairy’s barns (which house their 300 cows) are flushed clean of manure with recycled waste water. The liquids and solids are separated out; the solids are composted for later use as fertilizer, and the liquids head to a holding pond that is covered by tarp. The tarp captures  methane gas that is created from anaerobic digestion, which fuels an engine and creates heat and electricity. The heat is used to warm water for the dairy, and the electricity is used to offset utility bills and charge electric vehicles. Any leftover electricity is sold back to the grid.

“[Methane is] something we’ve had to handle…it’s a potential pollutant and we needed to deal with it,” Straus says. And with the digester comes the added bonus of fertilizer for the cows’ pastures. “By doing the anaerobic digestion, you’re converting the manure into a more available form for the plants.”

In addition to removing pollutants from the air and providing nutrients for Straus’s fields, the methane digester is quite economical, too. With a large investment up front ($334,680, to be exact), the digester saves the farm $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Straus able to funding from the state’s Water Quality Board to offset the initial cost, helping Straus Family Creamery to see a turn on investment within 5 years.

Straus Family Creamery methane digester

Straus Family Creamery methane digester

You could say that Straus’s commitment to sustainability is in his blood. “My parents were instrumental with environmental organizations and keeping communication open between farmers and the government,” he says. His mother, Ellen Straus, even co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which conserves available farmland in the county.

And what’s the next step in alternative energy for the creamery? “I’m interested in both technology and sustainability,” Straus says. “We’ve looked at solar and wind generators, we’re looking at solar heating of water. We’re always looking at what we can do with technologies. How can we help our other farms get digesters and how can we make it affordable.”

This week’s contest question is: Methane is also produced from natural gas emissions and landfills. What changes would you make to reduce these? Submit your answer in the comments below by Thursday, March 13 at 12:00p.m. EDT for a chance to win the current issue of culture. The winner will be chosen at random and announced in next week’s Green Cheese post.

Tune in next week to hear from Black Mesa Ranch, a goat cheese creamery from Arizona that runs off the grid, exclusively using solar and wind power to operate.

Photo by Straus Family Farms

Alicia Hahn

Alicia Hahn excels at eating and enjoys writing, crosswords, and cooking (preferably with cheese). Originally from San Francisco, she moved to Boston for school and fell in love with the city (despite an annual campaign against winter). Her favorite place to be is the farmers’ market, where she finds weird and exciting ingredients to make or break her next meal.

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