As we move toward the 2019 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards on Climate Day at Expo West this year, we're talking with the leaders of our 2018 award-winning companies to learn a little bit more about what drives their climate leadership.
Our seventh interview is with Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery and Organic Dairy Farmer, who won our Outstanding Influencer Award in 2018 for his role as an advocate for organic, non-GMO dairy production, environmental stewardship, and family farms. Straus Family Creamery is celebrating 25 years of commitment to the planet, farmers, and food this year.
Congratulations on your award! What inspires you to pursue climate leadership? Was there a defining moment that really crystalized this direction for you?
I was deeply influenced by my parents, Bill and Ellen Straus, both of whom were farmers and very early environmentalists, with a steadfast commitment to being stewards of the land. They saw farmland as a part of a much larger, sustainable food system, where family farms were integrated into the community. My father was one of the first in western Marin County to adopt new and environmentally sound agricultural practices. My mother co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the first agricultural land trust in the country, which indefinitely protects farmland in Marin County in Northern California. Both my parents were instrumental in encouraging and helping me launch Straus Family Creamery.
Encouraging climate action at the farm level is a critical aspect of the mission. It’s essential for us to educate our community including our employees on how organic dairy farmers can protect the planet and combat climate change through environmental practices. At the Creamery, we offer internal education through lunch-and-learns, team huddles, and sustainability initiatives. Some staff members engage in advocacy through local government meetings, speaking engagements, and public relations outreach.
There are lots of ways to reduce your carbon footprint. How did you decide what to prioritize?
Growing up on my family’s dairy farm, being a steward of the land was something my parents valued. I grew up with the same respect for the environment. Long before our dairy farm was certified organic (the first organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River) we had already stopped using herbicides and chemical fertilizers and adopted a no-till planting of silage crops and pastures, to prevent soil erosion and reduce fuel consumption.
Throughout several decades, a manure wastewater pond system was implemented and improved beyond state and federal requirements. This enabled the dairy to use naturally composted manure solids as fertilizer and to turn manure liquids back into nutrient-rich water for irrigation of pastures.
In 2004, I installed a methane digester which provides enough renewable energy to power my entire dairy farm, charge my electric car and other farm vehicles. The digester has reduced methane emissions by 1,645 metric tons of CO2e each year—equivalent to eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions from about 350 passenger cars. By installing methane digesters, we can dramatically reduce methane emissions from dairy farms.
Furthermore, the pasture grasslands of an organic dairy farm are an ideal environment to implement carbon farming practices. Carbon farming is recognized globally as a solution to fight climate change. The regenerative agricultural practice of carbon farming is helping move carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. In addition, carbon farming practices also work to improve crop and pasture productivity. When soils have more organic matter and provide proper nutrition, they naturally increase the volume of pasture production; and with increased pasture production, cows have more nutritional-rich grasses and farmers can reduce outside feed costs.
Straus Family Creamery has had great success in reducing its footprint at the Creamery by partnering with energy providers, like Marin Clean Energy and Sonoma Clean Power, who can deliver low or no carbon electricity. At the Creamery, we purchase 100 percent renewable electricity from non-polluting, Green-e Energy certified wind and solar power sources in California through our partnership with Marin Clean Energy’s Deep Green Renewable Program. The emissions from our Creamery, due in large part to these relationships, is around 50 percent below the industry average for dairy processing emissions.
Has there been an experience leading this project that stands out to you, or an aspect that makes you particularly proud?
Since water is perhaps our most valuable natural resource, we reuse all the Creamery water at the Creamery and Straus Dairy Farm instead of letting all the water go down the drain. We reuse about 8,000,000 gallons of waste water each year.
Every gallon of water the Creamery uses shares the same journey. Fresh water and “cow water” (water filtered from cow’s milk through reverse osmosis) is primarily used for the daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment at the Creamery. The waste water from the Creamery is captured and transported a short distance to the Straus Dairy Farm, where it’s eventually used for the methane digester (a big pond, covered with a tarp, where the methane that is produced is used to generate energy to power the entire farm.) And then the waste water is used for cleaning the manure in the barns, and it’s ultimately used as nutrients in the pastures and as irrigation water.
At Straus Family Creamery, we continually revise our production processes and implement new systems to minimize adverse environmental impacts. Because we use our waste water to irrigate the Straus Dairy Farm’s pastures, we do everything we can to ensure the food-making processes at the Creamery have a positive impact on the land. For example, we use potassium-based cleaning agents to avoid high concentrations of sodium in the water, because high levels of sodium are toxic to plants. Currently, we’re actively investigating an electrolyzed water system, so we can eliminate cleaning chemicals that can be detrimental to the environment.
Have your efforts improved relationships with your consumers?
We believe we’re in this together, and we’re both working towards the same common goal. As a brand and processor, we work closely with our farmers and identify ways to share our innovation, ideas, and collaborate, so there is more rapid adoption of our pioneering sustainability practices.
An example of working together towards a common goal is our reusable glass bottle program which involves educating our consumers, retailers and our distributors about the program. It also requires each person along the supply chain to do their part to ensure this circular packaging program is successful. Since our origins in 1994, Straus has bottled certified organic cream-top milk in reusable glass bottles. Each glass bottle has a $2.00 deposit that is refunded when the rinsed bottle is returned to the store. The bottles are then returned to the Creamery, washed, sanitized, and reused an average of five times before being recycled. We have a return rate of more than 80 percent of our bottles. People who purchase our reusable glass bottles help keep approximately 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of the landfill each year.
What is your vision for the future of climate action in the natural foods industry—and do you have advice for companies who may share this vision?
Well, first, innovation and collaboration with farmers and the community are essential.
My BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to create a replicable carbon-neutral dairy model (net zero climate emissions) on my dairy farm by 2022. This model supports producing high-quality organic foods, and will have a global impact on reversing climate change.
This article is the fifth in a series of interviews conducted by The Climate Collaborative.