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Clover Sonoma sells stake in its dairy business to Colombia food company

Clover Sonoma, the Petaluma-based dairy processor famed for punny billboards featuring its Clo the cow mascot, has sold a stake in the business to a Colombia-based food company, as it seeks to expand its Bay Area distribution nationwide.

Officials at privately held Clover Sonoma did not disclose the size of the equity stake, nor the price paid by Alpina, a family-owned company started by Swiss immigrants who came to Colombia to make cheese. After the deal is completed, Chairman Marcus Benedetti will still be the largest shareholder in Clover Sonoma and lead the strategy for the business that has generated $237 million in revenue in the past year and employs 260 workers and sources from 30 dairies mostly in Northern California.

The iconic Sonoma County brand, which changed its name from Clover Stornetta in 2017, is hoping to expand at a time of rapid change in the dairy industry. Changing consumer tastes and competition from plant-based dairy alternatives have been the biggest source of change, compounded by shifting climate patterns and historic drought that has challenged California dairies, many of which have reduced or sold off herds.

In an interview, Benedetti stressed that Alpina family members share his company’s outlook on how to grow dairy businesses sustainably, making the partnership a good fit because Clover Sonoma is a certified B Corporation that has met standards for social responsibility and environmental practices.

“We have new partners, and they happen to not be Sonoma County-based but they have a more global perspective and that's important,” said Benedetti, who has worked for 22 years at the company that was formed by his grandfather, Gene Benedetti, and a group of partners in August 1977 as Clover Stornetta Farms. The ownership structure of the families has changed throughout the years, along with the 2017 name change as the company sought to highlight its local roots.

“The fit is the most important thing in that process to guarantee that the values are continued to be built upon. And as chairman of the board, it's my responsibility to see that happens,” Benedetti said.

As part of the new investment, Benedetti will give up his role as chief executive officer to Ken Gott, current president and chief operating officer, so he can have a larger focus on bringing new products to more Americans. The entire Clover Sonoma leadership team will be kept in place.

“After many years in the dairy business, we are focused on the partnership alignment and growth of the business nationally,” Gott said in a statement. “Having been with Clover for more than six years, I’ve worked alongside Marcus and the leadership team to create operational processes and structures that allow for future national expansion. We look forward to evaluating how best to scale and innovate, while preserving our values as a business.”

The changes come as Clover Sonoma looks to find ways to grow its brand as milk consumption continues to decrease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in October that the average rate of decrease was 1% annually during the 2000s and that dropped even more during the past decade to a rate of decline of 2.6% a year. Benedetti noted that cheese still is a solid seller and organic butter had a boost during the pandemic with more people baking at home.

In response, Clover Sonoma has brought new products to the market outside the traditional milk items such as its organic milk smoothies and new line called Moon Milks that is being tested locally that contain ingredients such as antioxidants, botanicals and honey and come in flavors such as turmeric ginger and blueberry lavender.

“We have to realize and fulfill kind of our aspirations with respect to pushing more products out nationally. It requires always constant new life, new ideas, and frankly new capital to help enable that,” Benedetti said.

The effort includes growing Clover Sonoma’s business with natural foods chains such as Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods with the innovative products also helping complement its efforts in producing more recyclable packaging and working with its dairies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said she was glad that local ownership will still be involved at Clover Sonoma, which is one of three dairy processors in the county along with Straus Family Creamery and Petaluma Creamery for local farmers to sell their milk.

Such supply chain links are crucial for all types of farmers and ranchers in the area, Tesconi said. She noted how French company Danone bought the former Wallaby Yogurt Co. processing plant in American Canyon and then later closed it in 2019 amid corporate consolidation, which affected many dairy farmers in the region.

“Those long-term relationships do help with processing,” she said. “They know the benefit of someone who is not going to call them tomorrow and say they don’t have a product to buy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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