Home on the Ranch

Jewish roots run deep at Straus Family Creamery
May 20, 2013 7:45 AM ET

by Emma Silver, J. Staff, J Weekly, April 17

Original article here

For someone who grew up dreaming of the day she could live on a street with sidewalks — a place where she could wear pretty shoes meant for girls, instead of thick boots for tromping around in hay and manure — Vivien Straus sure seems happy here on her farm.

“We used to keep the calves here,” says Vivien, now 56, gesturing as she makes her way through the barn where she and her siblings used to build hay forts as kids. “And my mother thought [the animals] should always feel like they were outside, so she painted this bottom part green for the pasture, and up here’s blue for the sky. That was my mother.”

Her mother, Ellen Straus, is remembered for many things here in Marin County. A tireless environmental activist, she founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980, which protects 69 ranches and dairies covering 44,000 acres in Marin County from development and served as a model for the more than 1,000 other land trusts created around the country. She was involved in a host of other local conservation efforts, and for the last 20 years of her life oversaw an organic garden on the family’s property that was open to the community.

Ellen’s husband, Bill, was known for being a hard-working farmer with a sharp sense of humor, liberal politics and a knack for leading 25-person Passover seders (during which he usually gave passionate speeches about the Jewish responsibility to help those in need).

But most of all, the Strauses are known for the company that carries their name — the Straus Family Creamery, the first certified organic dairy creamery west of the Mississippi.

Ellen and Bill Straus were German Jewish immigrants who escaped Europe before Hitler came to power. In 1941 they established a small dairy farm in Marshall, a small community on Tomales Bay in West Marin.  Both, according to their children, saw their ability to own and work their land as a deep source of pride and a marker of freedom; they took seriously their roles as stewards, protectors of the natural world.

In 1994, the couple’s eldest son, Albert, founded Straus Family Creamery, which makes high-quality, organic dairy products: unhomogenized milk topped with a thick layer of cream, packaged in reusable glass bottles; rich yogurts, sour cream, butter, cheeses; and seven flavors of ice cream that turn up regularly on the dessert menus of the Bay Area’s best restaurants.

The company has amassed something of a cult following made up of farm-to-table activists and plain old ice cream lovers alike.

The four Straus kids, now in their 40s and 50s — Albert, Vivien, Miriam and Michael — grew up in Marshall on the 166 rolling green acres that make up the Straus Home Ranch. And while they didn’t all decide to follow in their parents’ footsteps, their memories of growing up on the farm — as some of the only Jewish kids for miles — make clear that they’re each the carriers of an immigrant’s legacy that is, one could argue, uniquely Californian.

It doesn’t quite fit on the carton, but that pint of mint chocolate chip has one remarkable backstory.

Albert Straus is happy to tell it. Sitting in an office at the company’s Petaluma headquarters — adorned with cow clocks and an old-fashioned malt shop motif in the lobby area — he launches into the family’s history.

Bill Straus was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1914. His father, Albert, was one of the first Jews in Germany to earn a Ph.D. in agriculture, but he died while serving in World War I, when his son was just 4 years old. Inspired by his father’s accomplishments, Bill studied agriculture for several years at a school in Czechoslovakia. The student visa he was granted allowed him and his mother to leave Germany for British-mandated Palestine in 1936.

They were prepared to settle on a kibbutz when Bill received word that a relative had left him land in San Luis Obispo, and there was oil there just waiting to be drilled for.

“It turned out there wasn’t any oil, but they stayed anyway,” explains Albert, 58, who was named for his grandfather.

Bill earned a degree in animal husbandry from U.C. Berkeley in 1938. Three years later, he bought the ranch in Marshall, where he began a small dairy farm with 23 Jersey cows.

“I think part of it was just about having a place where they didn’t have to run from anything anymore,” Albert says of his father’s love of living off of — and working — the land. “There wasn’t the sense that at some point they were going to have to flee.”

In 1950, in search of a Jewish wife, Bill traveled to New York for a blind date with a girl 12 years his junior. Born in Amsterdam, Ellen and her parents narrowly escaped the Nazis by leaving Holland in 1940; the rest of their family later died in the Holocaust. It took Bill just 16 days to convince Ellen to marry him and move to California to live on a ranch. “She had always had a dream of marrying a farmer and living by the sea,” Vivien says.

They were a very close family, according to all the Straus kids, perhaps made closer by their status as outsiders

in the farming community at large. Theirs was one of two Jewish families in the area, the other being a Dutch Jewish immigrant family that Bill Straus had invited to live on the ranch next door, with an idea of forming a kibbutz of sorts. The two worked as partners for 20 years, celebrating Jewish holidays together on the farm.

But beyond that, the Strauses stuck out like a family of sore thumbs.

“I was definitely picked on in school, and I was well aware that we were Jewish and nobody else was,” says Albert, who recalls a daily life of getting up before dawn to feed calves and collect eggs from chickens, then attending primary school in a one-room schoolhouse with three or four other farmers’ kids. “But I loved being outside, I loved working with animals. I enjoyed the farming life from very early on.”

In high school, he founded a recycling club and helped organize the school’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970. As a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he majored in dairy science. His siblings say there was never a question that he would be the one to take over the family business.

So it’s no surprise that, as CEO of the creamery,  Albert is focused on making organic farming as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible, pushing the values he learned alongside his parents one step further. The farm on which he lives with his wife and teenage son and works every day — just down the road from the one where he grew up — is home to a methane digester that turns waste from cows into energy that fuels his electric car and helps power the farm.

Returning from school and taking on a management position in the family business, he helped convert his father’s farm to an entirely organic operation. Then he founded the creamery both out of a “weakness for ice cream,” he admits, and a desire to fix the country’s food system at large, which he calls “broken.” He’s also actively involved in the movement to insist that the Department of Agriculture clearly distinguish between genetically modified and non-GMO foods through labeling and education.

“People get subsidized not to grow crops, they’re producing as much food, at very low quality, as they can, and we’re losing 5 percent of our farms every year. That’s not even getting into GMOs,” he says of U.S. farming. “It’s totally dysfunctional.”

When he first began talking about starting an all-organic dairy more than 20 years ago, Albert recalls people telling him he was crazy. Today, some 70 percent of the farms in Marin and Sonoma are certified organic.

His parents’ Jewish values stuck with him, as well. Growing up, he and his family occasionally went to synagogue in Petaluma, at what became Congrega-tion B’nai Israel, but mainly they celebrated their Judaism at home. Both Albert and Michael were bar mitzvahed on the farm, and family Passover seders saw relatives traveling for hundreds of miles to eat at the farmhouse — and listen to Bill’s emotional speeches about the social injustices of the day.

“He was adamant that when there was an injustice, you just could not stand by watching,” says Vivien, echoing comments made by each of her siblings. “You stood up and you said something.”

Interactions with other local farmers, meanwhile, were often frosty.

“We were not very well liked, to put it mildly,” says Vivien of the tight-knit, overwhelmingly Christian community. She recalls buses picking kids up from her school to go to catechism class at two local churches every Tuesday afternoon and leaving two students behind: herself and a student who had Down syndrome.

“Of course, my parents were very liberal, very outspoken, and that didn’t help either because everyone else was conservative. That’s really changed a lot in the last 10 to 20 years … but at the time, it was really hard not having very many friends. I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to leave,” Vivien says.

She attended college in Oregon, and then worked as an actress in New York and Los Angeles. Her one-woman show, “Getting It Wrong” (subtitle: “Comedy, romance and cows”), dealt with growing up Jewish in rural California and her at-times difficult relationship with her father (whom, she says, loved every minute of the performance; he liked to be the center of attention).

Her love of the family farm brought her back into the fold in the mid-’90s, when her brother started the creamery. She served as vice president of marketing, mostly telecommuting from Los Angeles.

After her parents died within seven months of each other 10 years ago, she learned about things they never shared, including a file of 38 sponsorship letters her father had written to help European immigrants come to the United States after the war.

It was also soon after her parents died that she decided it was time to come home for good.

These days, Vivien lives in Petaluma. While Albert is the only sibling who still works at Straus Family Creamery, which he co-owns with his wife, Vivien manages Straus Home Ranch, whose green hills and streams are protected under the land trust her mother founded. Young heifers live here until they’re old enough to be impregnated over at Albert’s farm; large fields of sweet grasses used for silage (cow feed) are also grown here. On occasion, she has opened the farm to visits from elementary schools for gardening and agriculture projects; last year a group of kids helped plant willow sprigs to stabilize a stream bank.

In addition to retooling her one-woman show, Vivien currently works for Petaluma-based Cowgirl Creamery, which uses milk from Straus cows in many of its gourmet cheeses, and serves as an agricultural representative on the board of directors of the Marin Economic Forum. Her main project is working to support local cheese makers; she’s created a “Sonoma-Marin Cheese Trail” map and is at work on a California Cheese Trail app as well.

Miriam Straus Berkowitz, 50, moved to New York as an adult in part because she wanted her kids to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community, unlike where she was reared. “I remember feeling isolated, feeling different,” she says by phone. “Trying to understand where we came from and who we were and why we were different.

“You know, my parents would be yelling at my sister about how she should be dating someone Jewish, and it was like — how? Where?” she says with a laugh.

Now living in upstate New York with her husband, Miriam works as a teacher of agriculture and environmental studies at a private Quaker school.

She has her mom to thank for her passion for education, she says, pointing to her mother’s environmental advocacy work: After reading “Silent Spring,” a 1962 book widely credited with helping launch America’s environmental movement, Ellen Straus’ activism took center stage in her life; she served on the boards of the Marin Conservation League, the Marin Community Foundation, the Environmental Action Committee and the Greenbelt Alliance, among others. She also co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust with her friend Phyllis Faber in 1980.

When Ellen Straus learned in her 70s that she had cancer, one of first exclamations was “But I have so much more work to do!”

“Ellen always knew exactly what to say in a way that would make people see eye to eye,” says one neighbor in Marshall who worked with her on several boards. “Everyone in the room would be at each other’s throats about something and she would just think for a moment and say a very few, well-chosen words, and that would be that.”

Which is not to say Ellen wasn’t a hands-on farmer as well: Her New York Times obituary noted that on the first night of the farm’s completely organic operation in the early 1990s, she individually stamped expiration dates on glass milk bottles as they rolled off the conveyor belt. She also led educational tours of the dairy farm for the land trust a few times a year, preparing lunch for groups of 50 or so visitors at a time.

“You can’t make educated decisions about land use if you can’t appreciate what it’s used for in the first place, and I think that’s why I got into education,” Miriam says of her mother’s legacy. “There’s such a disconnect between land and food because, really, how are you supposed to know anything else if you just buy your food from the grocery store? I feel like my role in what my family started is to educate, and the way you do that is to have people really get their hands dirty.”

“We were these strange, eclectic Jews on the farm,” he says. “And believe me, the last thing I wanted to do was be a farmer. I never expected to have anything to do with agriculture, let alone with the Jewish community.”Michael, the youngest of the Straus clan at 46, has just returned to Marin after three years of traveling around Asia. He is, for the moment, back on the farm, which he calls “one of the most beautiful places in the world.” As a kid, he notes, he would have rather been just about anywhere else.

Yet after graduating from U.C. Santa Cruz with a degree in Russian, Michael traveled to Israel with Otzma, a volunteer service program, then under the auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America. He helped launch a Russian immigration center in Israel, and upon returning used his Russian-language skills as a job counselor for recent immigrants at a Jewish assisted-living facility in San Francisco, then at Jewish Vocational Service.

“[Albert] basically said, ‘Oh, we’re doing this thing and it’s going to be all organic,’ and I said, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” Michael recalls. “And then I left my job at JVS to help him.”In 1994, he was stunned to hear that his brother wanted to expand the family business and open a brand new creamery.

His public relations work for Straus Family Creamery led Michael to start his own PR firm specializing in sustainability and organics, which he ran from 1999 until 2010. Then he “closed up shop, had a bit of a midlife crisis, and went backpacking around Asia,” working as a freelance travel journalist and studying indigenous healers, which he calls a life-changing experience that inspired him to start studying Kabbalah.

As for the wave of interest in agriculture, food politics and the back-to-the-land movement that has caught on among younger Jews in their 20s and 30s over the past decade — often through nature-focused Jewish groups like Hazon and Urban Adamah — Michael says it’s been fun to watch, but not surprising.

He also finds himself chuckling at the status to which the Straus family has been elevated in certain foodie circles. “I think it can get a little overblown,” he says, remembering when, in the early years of getting the creamery off the ground, the dairy received its first mention in the New York Times.“I call them JOPs: Jewish organic people,” he says, listing the names of friends and fellow Otzma participants who have gotten into farming in Northern California. “And obviously it’s not just Jews. I think people who have been living in the city are looking for ways to reconnect with the land … but it’s definitely been interesting to see how attitudes about farming have changed over the last 20 years, to see it being talked about as this cool thing. As a kid, it was definitely not cool to be living on a farm in Marshall, three miles north of a town with 50 people.”

“Which is part of why, when people go ‘Oh, Straus, I love your milk’ — this dairy rock star thing — I’m like, ‘Look, I grew up pouring raw milk from a 1,500-gallon tank onto my Grape-Nuts every morning.’ There was really nothing precious about it,” he says.“I ran to show my mom, saying ‘Look, look,’ and she looked at me and said ‘Michael, do you think maybe it’s too much?’” he recalls. “My parents were very modest, hardworking people who did the best they could, who were grateful every day for what they had here in this country and felt it was their duty to preserve it, and they really didn’t give a shit about fame or fortune.

“I mean, we’re just milkmen.”

on the cover

photo/courtesy of the straus family
Bill and Ellen Straus in the early days of the Straus Home Ranch