The world is facing a climate crisis and the changes this brings are dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including President Trump who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement.
However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the two-degree Celsius limit. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.
The SFT has been running this series over the past 12 months, featuring a diverse range of American farmers. This week we interview Albert Straus, the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery, a family-owned-and-operated business dedicated to making premium organic dairy products, with minimal processing. The Straus Dairy Farm (Albert’s farm) and Creamery, located in the small town of Marshall on the Northern California Coast, was the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi River and the first 100% certified organic creamery in the United States.
Straus Family Creamery purchases certified organic milk from 12 independent organic family farms , including Straus Dairy Farm, in Northern California’s Marin and Sonoma Counties. The combination of rich soil, one of the nation’s most diverse grassland systems and a mild coastal climate, create the ideal setting for organic dairy farming. Land stewardship and sustainable organic farming are deeply rooted principles for Albert and his mission-driven business. The Creamery was the first in the world to receive TRUE® Zero Waste Certification by diverting a total of more than 1 million pounds of waste from landfills and the environment. It is powered by 100% zero carbon renewable electricity; the milk is bottled in reusable glass bottles; and the Straus Dairy Farm is aiming to create a replicative net carbon neutral farming model by 2022.
What climate issues have you encountered in your region? Have you had any particularly severe weather events that are climate change related?
We’ve had more heat, more dryness, more drought – California had a five-year drought ending in 2017. More recently, we’ve gone through unusual heat waves, 110-111 degrees Fahrenheit in the coastal inland valleys; I think that’s the highest temperature we’ve had in over a hundred years.
We’ve had millions of trees dying in California [from the drought] which is causing more wildfires – we’re in our fourth year of dramatic wildfires and power outages. Everything is extreme. These wildfires are emitting so much carbon into the atmosphere; it’s reversing some of the positive steps that we’ve been doing here. A few months ago, there were days that we couldn’t even go outside because the air was so unhealthy.
What have you done to prepare for more aggressive changes in weather and climate as global warming continues to intensify and what have you done as a business or individually to prepare?
I’ve been talking to the State Secretary of Agriculture about their task force and strategy for grassland and forestry management, where livestock have an essential role. What has happened over time is that [livestock] have become a polarising issue in society. We have so much open space that animals are taken from parks, open space districts, and off federal, state and local lands. It’s out of balance. Recently, Point Reyes National Seashore finalised a new general management plan and community members said that they want elk instead of livestock because the cows are polluting and causing environmental and climate damage. Cows can live in harmony with elk if managed properly. If we have good management practices for grazing livestock, we can demonstrate that livestock are a primary solution to climate change. Managed livestock grazing is an essential land management tool that can help reduce catastrophic wildfire risk or fire intensity while also cycling nutrients through the soil and fostering healthy wildlife habitat. Managed livestock grazing and other climate-smart practices are time-honoured methods in sustainable farming communities throughout the world.
I have a goal for my farm to be net carbon neutral by 2022. In 2013, the Straus Dairy Farm became the first dairy farm in the United States to implement a carbon farm plan, in conjunction with the Marin Carbon Project. It’s a 20-year carbon farm plan that will reduce and sequester 2000 metric tons of CO2e every year.
A large portion of the carbon farm plan is mitigated through methane destruction from the methane digester that we’ve had for 16 years. It captures methane out of the atmosphere (a greenhouse gas) from the cows’ manure and transforms it into electricity, producing all the renewable energy for the farm.
Around 320 metric tons of CO2e is sequestered from the atmosphere back into the soil each year through carbon farming practices. This is done by adding compost to the land, using animals in rotational grazing, planting hedgerows and windbreaks, and sequestering more carbon back into the soil from the atmosphere by growing more forage and more pasture. Animals that graze actually promote more growth [in pastures].
The Straus Dairy Farm is part of the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard’s programme that will incentivize the pathway from renewables to electric plug-in vehicles. We’re collaborating with BMW Group to take advantage of this programme. The partnership enables us to get five to 10 times more for the electricity that we are selling to the utility company. We’re demonstrating that collaboration and good environmental practices create a new income source for farmers.
Do you get any support from local or state government to help you negotiate climate change impacts on your farming?
The state of California has different programmes – there’s a healthy soils initiative which is about building soil organic matter; there’s the methane digester programme that we took advantage of decades ago; there’s one on alternative manure management practices which is trying to reduce emissions on farms – dry scrape, composting, different practices like that. There are research conservation districts that are local and funded by the state. Our local land trust (Marin Agricultural Land Trust) in Marin County is working on restoration and best practices on farms and broader conservation measures.
What do you think needs to be done to help mitigate climate change and how do you see farming playing a positive role in this?
What I’ve tried to do at our Creamery has been to build a company based on mutual respect and mutually-beneficial relationships with our farmers. For example, twice a month, we have to pay for the milk from our farmers, and instead of mailing the check or direct depositing (except during COVID), we hand deliver the check. The idea is that you build this relationship, you build an understanding and knowledge about farming practices. Four times a year we get together with all the family farms and talk about how the Creamery is doing and what the challenges are on the farm. But what’s most important is that we have an addendum to our contract, that has a volume per farm that’s in line with our sales. That way we can maintain a higher price for our farmers because we don’t have surplus milk that we have to sell-off at a loss. We’re able to pay a price that is sustainable for the dairy farms, and with the goal that farmers can pay themselves as managers of their own businesses – which most farmers don’t – and improve their infrastructure and plan for succession to the next generation, as the average age of farmers is about 60 years old.
The other thing that’s unusual about our Creamery is that I’m a farmer – most processors aren’t farmers. There is a lack of understanding about farming and there’s a tension between the two – the processor wants a lower price for the milk, the farmer needs a higher price, so there’s always this dynamic. I’m advocating for the farmer within my own company.
I think what the downfall of agriculture is, in the United States, is that farmers are told to maximise food production to feed the world, which is self-defeating, because it creates depressed pricing and unpredictability in the market. We’ve gone from 4.6 million dairy farms in the United States in 1940 to less than 34,000 today. The average size [of herds] is 1,300 cows, while the average size in organic dairy is 100 cows. Our group is approximately 250 cows per farm.
Through this pandemic and through climate change, we’re seeing that it’s really essential to have a local, diverse farming and food system. In the US, we import half our fruit, a third of our vegetables, 11% of our beef, 80% of our lamb and 90% of our seafood. As a society, we’re at risk especially during this pandemic, we don’t have a strong global distribution system and a lot of people are going hungry. The pandemic has been an opportunity to re-evaluate and really have this dialogue about how we can change the farming and food system in an environment where there are more and more stresses to our planet and our society.
Is climate change the biggest threat to your financial viability or are other economic issues a greater concern?
I don’t think climate change by itself is our biggest challenge. Yes, climate change is a big issue and it’s a symptom of what we aren’t doing for the environment. We’re exploiting our resources: our soil, our air, our water. At the Creamery, we’re trying to show that we can do it better, producing high-quality organic food. At the farm, we’re trying to show that organic farming is a primary solution to climate change, along with the regenerative agricultural practices of carbon farming, by adding compost and using cows in rotational grazing and sequestering carbon back into the soil – practices that we need to get back to on a wider scale. Carbon farming has been recognised internationally as one of the only ways to reverse climate change rather than just reducing it.
It’s important how you manage through a changing environment. It’s collaborating; it’s managing our supply to meet our demand, it’s educating consumers. We’re a mission-based company – the mission is sustaining family farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties by providing high-quality, minimally processed organic dairy products and helping revitalise rural communities through education and advocacy. We’re trying to develop a model of farming and food, locally and regionally, that other people can replicate across the country and throughout the world.
We have three ‘next generation’ dairy farms that joined us last year and their challenge is to get to a scale where they can sustain themselves as a business and as a family. For me, it’s about how you create that opportunity for the next generation. I’m asking other dairy farmers and myself to give up volume to help these younger farmers succeed. Collaborating to help the next generation is essential.
What is your major priority for future US farm policy?
Our goal is to create a net carbon neutral farming model while producing high-quality organic food for our local communities. To realise this, we’d like to see a national programme to incentivise carbon farming practices, using animals to graze grasslands for carbon sequestration and wildfire mitigation. We’d also like to see more renewable energy on farms connected to methane digesters, electrifying farm vehicles and tractors. And feeding red seaweed supplement to cows which could vastly reduce enteric methane in livestock. Finally, it’s imperative that farmers are paid the true cost of food and there is more development of affordable agricultural employee housing in rural communities.
Teaser photo credit By U.S. Department of Agriculture – Flickr: organic cattle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31976441