MARSHALL — Strolling past his company’s aging creamery in Marshall on Thursday morning, Albert Straus called to mind a pasteurized version of Willy Wonka:
“We’ve got ice cream here, yogurt over there, and there’s the butter room” said the 63-year-old dairy farmer and CEO of Straus Family Creamery. “Our soft-serve ice cream is made in those vats.”
It won’t be for long.
On Monday, construction begins on the company’s new creamery, a $20 million, 70,000-square-foot structure in Rohnert Park. While the Marshall dairy plant produces 16,000 gallons of milk a day, the new one “will have the capacity to almost double that, and do it much more efficiently,” Straus said. That increased capacity is key: the 25-year-old company is expected to double in size over the next seven to 10 years, according to its founder.
With more and more North Bay dairy farmers switching to the production of organic milk in recent years, prices have softened considerably. Despite that glut, Straus Family Creamery has remained profitable, and is moving full speed ahead on its creamery upgrade.
“Albert has the perfect model for what consumers want today,” said Rosie Burroughs, an organic dairy farmer from outside Turlock. “They want to know their farmer, and they want local. Consumers are very loyal to him.
“He has developed an excellent product,” she said. “His ice creams are the best there are on the market right now.”
With its “strong niche” in the organic market, said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University, Straus’ company has insulated itself from much of that dairy industry volatility. “Larger players working on volume and slim margins are more susceptible.”
Straus grew up a few miles west of his Marin County creamery, on a farm with an agribusiness founded in 1941 by his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany. William Straus started his operation with 23 Jersey cows, each named for a friend or relative. Not everyone was delighted by this charming origin story.
Albert recalled that his Aunt Gertrude “took exception to having a cow named after her.”
Gertrude — the aunt, not the bovine — might’ve felt differently, had she known where all of this was going.
After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo university in 1977 with a degree in dairy science, Albert returned to Marshall at a time of tumult in the dairy business.
Family farms were disappearing, replaced by far larger, industrial-scale operations.
He took the road less traveled, transforming his family’s farm into the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River.
In 1994, he started the Straus Family Creamery, a separate business that became both an iconic regional brand — best known for its clear glass bottles of milk with a layer of cream at the top — and pioneer in agricultural sustainability and the farm-to-table movement.
His decision to build a production plant in Sonoma County comes nine years after the company moved its headquarters and warehouse from Marshall to Petaluma, and six or seven years since Straus started seriously looking to replace the old creamery.
The Rohnert Park plant will employ 140 people, a few more than the number of workers at the Marshall creamery. The move will result in shortened commutes to work for the majority of those employees, many of whom live in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma. With Petaluma also the site of the company’s distribution center, the move will result in much shorter trips — on roads nowhere near as narrow or twisting — for the drivers of its 6,000-gallon milk tankers.
This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.