Our Milk Shed: Coastal Marin and Sonoma Counties

By Sue Conley / Photography By Sara Remington | March 01, 2012
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Peggy Smith and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery
Peggy Smith and Sue Conley

Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods was established in 1997 with the idea that we might create an agricultural food identity, or appellation, in our coastal Marin and Sonoma milkshed. We plugged along with our big idea, but it wasn’t until R. W. Apple of the New York Times identified Point Reyes the “Normandy North of the Golden Gate” in a 2001 feature article that we began to realize our dream.

“Amazingly, this profoundly rural area, much of it beyond the reach of cellphones, lies only 50 miles or so north of the Golden Gate. More amazingly, it has evolved in recent years into one of the nation’s prime centers of artisanal cheesemaking, a New World counterpart to Lombardy and Normandy.”

Soft Rolling Hills 


Apple picked five fledgling companies to write about. He dropped in on the Giacominis at Point Reyes Farmstead, the Callahans at Bellwether Farms, Jennifer Bice and Steven Schack at Redwood Hill Farm and ended his visit in Point Reyes with the Straus family and Peggy Smith and myself, the Cowgirls.

Driving along the curvy coastal highways between cheesemakers, Apple remarked on the similarities between the windswept shores of Normandy, France, and the rolling hills of western Marin and Sonoma counties. He was charmed by the passion of the cheesemakers he met here and likened them to farmstead cheesemakers that he knew from his extensive travels in Europe and the British Isles. Even the landscape was familiar.

“Its verdant moors, punctuated here and there with yellow gorse, slope down to firth-like Tomales Bay, and on most mornings horizontal stripes of low-lying fog cling to the hillsides beyond. No wonder there are villages and roads with names like Argyll and Aberdeen and Inverness.”

Apple was correct in observing that there was an Old World feeling in the dreamy landscape and a human spirit grounded in agrarian roots that honor tradition and family connections. He also commented that this place is distinctively “Californian”—meaning open to innovation and new ideas.

Not Quite Alike 


In comparing our area with Normandy, differences begin to appear as soon as you look at the animals we raise. Normandy’s cows are brown and white and are from Viking stock; ours are mostly black and white Holsteins and light brown Jerseys developed in the Netherlands and Great Britain.

And as for knowledge and expertise in the craft of cheesemaking? The artisans in Normandy have been making Camembert and Liverot for hundreds of years while the producers that Apple visited in our area in 2001 had been making Carmody, Point Reyes Original Blue, Mt Tam and California Crottin for less than a dozen years combined. Though the area had been farmed since the mid 1800s by skilled dairy families from Italy, Switzerland and Scotland, a cheesemaking tradition did not immediately take hold.

In fact, at the turn of the 21st century, Sonoma and Marin’s cheesemakers were still in the early stages of learning to set curd and make good cheese. Cowgirl Creamery was only four years old when Apple paid a visit. He fell in love with our cottage cheese and dipped into the creamy curds with a large soup spoon after grinding a little black pepper on top.

“Mmmm,” he said, “that’s what cottage cheese is supposed to taste like.” Our cheese did what we designed it to do: It highlighted the delicate flavors of grass, salt and cream in the milk from Straus Family Creamery.

Ellen Straus, who helped Cowgirl Creamery develop our first fresh cheeses, was at the end of her battle with cancer when Apple visited her at home. He did not want to miss the chance to meet the legendary activist and the visit delighted Ellen. She was so proud of her son Albert’s success in transitioning the family dairy to the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi and, after he had his feet on the ground, was almost as proud of the success of Cowgirl Creamery. She had, after all, worked side by side with the cheesemakers in the creamery and also helped in the kitchen where she baked her famous cheesecake every Friday.

To Ellen, the idea that this type of business might thrive in rural West Marin gave life to theoretical concepts discussed in endless meetings that led to the founding of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and Marin Organic, organizations that paved the way for a regional identity. Coming from Europe, Ellen and Bill Straus yearned for the delicious fresh local cheeses of their youth and knew that they could not have them unless they first saved the farmland from development and then created a market for the goods. Finally, it seemed that years of planning for a local agricultural future was starting to gain traction.

Getting Milk From There to Here 


In these early days, Cowgirl Creamery collected milk from the Straus family’s dairy in Marshall in 10-gallon milk cans and transported it down Highway 1 in an old Toyota camper van. This seems awkward and inefficient now, but it’s the way everybody did it at first.

At Bellwether Farms, Cindy Callahan and her son, Liam, picked up cans of Jersey milk in the back of a pickup truck from a neighboring dairy and drove it up the steep hill to their creamery. There, they made Tuscan-style cheese in small batches and re-cooked the whey, scooping curd from the surface to create a delicate ricotta cheese. Cindy delivered the cheese herself to San Francisco restaurants.

Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farms used five-gallon cans to haul her goat milk over the rolling hills of western Sonoma County and up that same steep hill to the Callahans’ creamery. She rented creamery time from Bellwether when she first started making goat cheese with milk from her own animals. At the creamery, Jennifer inoculated her milk with lactic acid cultures in big white plastic buckets. She drove back the next day to scoop the curd into cheesecloth sacks, then waited four to six hours to allow the whey to drain from the curd. After washing and sanitizing the creamery, she poured the curd into buckets, sealed them up and carted them back down the hill to her dairy for packaging.

For the beginning cheesemaker, establishing efficiencies in moving milk from the milking parlor to the production room proved to be a true achievement.

Milk Supply 


Establishing a consistent source of quality milk proved to be the biggest puzzle for the emerging industry. The Callahans started making sheep milk cheese in 1995 and, as theirs was the first sheep dairy in the West, they needed to look to European breeders to learn which sheep stock are known as good milking animals. In the United States, sheep genetics were designed to produce excellent meat and wool, but not milk. At first, Cindy Callahan simply milked her meat sheep and bred the ewes that produced the most milk. Over time, she was able to introduce European dairy sheep genetics into the flock and production increased over time.

For two decades, the Callahans tried to persuade the struggling cow dairies in western Sonoma County to try sheep dairying so that Bellwether could have a good local supply of milk for their growing enterprise. Without sufficient sheep milk, the Callahans expanded their operation by making cheeses using local Jersey cow milk. Finally, in 2010, a neighboring rancher repurposed an old cow dairy and began raising and milking sheep. After 20 years of searching, at last the Callahans had a local sheep milk source that they could count on.

As demand for Redwood Hill Farms yogurt and cheese grew, the pressure to increase the number of milking animals grew proportionately. Instead of increasing the size of her farm, Jennifer Bice began contracting with other local goat milk producers. She also honed her skills in goat breeding and sold healthy kids to growing dairies. It would be difficult to find a local goat herd today that does not contain genetics from Bice’s herd.

Like Bice, Albert Straus continues to increase production by contracting with neighboring dairies. He has helped several struggling conventional dairies transition to organic with the promise that Straus will become a reliable purchaser of the milk. Without the Straus commitment to increasing production through these contracts with neighboring dairies, he would not be able to supply Cowgirl Creamery with milk from his own dairy.

The Giacominis at Point Reyes Farmstead are fortunate to have their own milk supply, selling excess production to the local dairy processor, Clover Stornetta. This has afforded the company the flexibility to grow at a comfortable pace without fear of milk shortages.

Local milk supply continues to be a balancing act. There is either too much or too little. Currently, the demand for both conventional and organic cow milk is strong, but the costs of feed are driving dairy profits down. That’s why so many longtime dairy families are interested in making artisan cheese.

The Beginning or the End 


When the five companies called out in R. W. Apple’s article started in the cheese business, we knew that there would be a market for our products—if we could make good cheese. So, in those early days our efforts were directed at practicing our craft and selling direct to consumers and restaurant chefs at farmers’ markets. Through these combined efforts, our appellation evolved.

Today, our coastal zone is identified as a premier cheese and dairy region with over 27 commercial cheesemakers located in Sonoma and Marin Counties. Unfortunately, many of these will not survive today’s exhausting challenges including increased operating costs, county zoning limitations, punishing restrictions on farm internship programs, confusing environmental regulations, limited milk sources, dramatic increases in workers compensation insurance and heightened food safety monitoring at the County, State and Federal levels.

Even the smallest dairy operation and the tiniest cheesemaking facility is expected to comply with rules and procedures designed to monitor large industrial processors. We are lucky to have experts in our milkshed who are working hard to sustain the momentum gained in the last two decades. Advisors at University of California Agricultural Extension, local elected officials, members of the California Artisan Cheese Guild and instructors at the Artisan Cheesemaking Certificate Program at College of Marin are all working to keep cheesemakers up to date on current regulatory requirements and to provide skills training for current and future cheesemakers.

Our hope is that the “Normandy North of the Golden Gate” that R. W. Apple described in his eloquent article will survive the assault of today’s regulatory environment and that the European style of making and selling cheese that we have studied and emulated over the years will not disappear under a heavy weight of new rules imposed by Food Safety Modernization Act of 2012, (one of the post-9/11 Homeland Security measures). With this legislation, the FDA has been given increased funding to closely monitor small cheese producers, raw milk dairies and companies that make Old World cheeses including natural rind cheeses, soft ripened cheeses and blue cheeses. Local and State health departments are being asked to participate in the increased scrutiny, starting with a crackdown on cheese shops and restaurants that display aged cheese, European style, at room temperature.

Moving forward, I wonder what Apple, who died in 2006, would say about the future of our appellation. Would he see the same optimism that excited him 12 years ago? Surely there are things in place that we can count on as we move into this next chapter. We work in one of the most magnificent dairy regions in the country, and work with extraordinary farmers and amazing artisans. Most importantly, we continue to benefit from the same incredible local support that gave us the courage to start our wonderful cheesemaking journey in the first place.


Sixteen years ago, Sue Conley founded Cowgirl Creamery in California’s premier dairy region with long-time friend, Peggy Smith. The Cowgirls make award-winning cheese while providing an important link between smallscale cheesemakers and urban consumers through their wholesale distribution division and retail stores. A book about Sue and Peggy’s cheese adventure, with recipes, will be published by Chronicle Books in the fall of 2013.

Find it

80 Fourth Street
Point Reyes Station, CA
(415) 663-9335

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