Boldly Going Where Small Family Dairies Must Go

By Robin Carpenter | March 01, 2013
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Founder Gene Benedetti with Clo
Founder Gene Benedetti with Clo. Photos courtesy of the Benedetti family

“I believe in the future of farming, with a faith born not of words but of deeds—achievements won by the present and past generations of farmers; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”
—From the Future Farmers of America Creed

“At Clover, we work with the most select group of small family-owned dairies. These multigenerational dairies understand that, in order to produce exceptional milk, you must take excellent care of your cows and your land.”
—Marcus Benedetti, president of Clover Stornetta Farms

It might be unusual to use the words traditional and innovative to describe the same thing, or to be asked to consider the love and hard work put forth by a farming family as a part of the terroir of their products, but for Sonoma County’s Clover Stornetta Farms, all of these descriptors are apt. The historical dairy processor honors the traditions of strong family ties, good land stewardship and animal husbandry while seeking innovative ways to keep small family dairies in our area viable.

“As a family-owned company, working together, we’re able to be nimble, flexible and quick to respond innovatively to challenges and opportunities, unlike larger companies,” says Clover Stornetta’s marketing director, Joanie Benedetti Claussen. This has been a key factor in enabling the company to help their partner dairies survive the vagaries of commodities milk pricing and rising feed and fuel costs.

Joanie’s brother and current Clover Stornetta president, Marcus Benedetti, gives insight into the legacy of innovation that was put in place by his grandfather and the company’s founder, Dean Benedetti, apparently a man who was always willing to take a business gamble. Marcus feels this came from Dean’s experiences in World War II, where he saw so many people die.

“He literally was in the first wave of combat to clear the obstacles at Normandy and when they put down the gate of the [landing craft] ... not one of the guys made it to the beach, to the sand, alive. Everything after that was trivial except for family. He never sweated the small stuff and if something failed he started up again. He put his premiums on relationships and values and handshakes.”

According to Joanie, the company itself was started with a handshake. “He [Dean Benedetti] was the general manager of the Petaluma cooperative creamery, Clover Co-op. In 1975 a fire destroyed the bottling plant and the board of directors decided not to rebuild. My grandfather said, ‘This is crazy—I’ll buy it and start a new business.’ So he went to Al Stornetta, owner of the Stornetta Dairy and a dairy processing plant in Sonoma, and asked if he would like to work with him. On a handshake they made a deal with the conditions that the Stornetta name would be used and Al would be paid back in five years.”

Today, there are 14 organic and 11 “natural” dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma counties from which milk and related dairy products are marketed under the names Clover Organic Farms and Clover Stornetta Family Farms, respectively. Marcus shares some of the ways in which they support their dairy ranchers and how this gives the ranchers an advantage in this particularly harsh economic climate.

“Our approach is pretty simple: We saw the dairy industry up here in the North Bay losing ground to other areas in the state and in the country that were much more economically feasible, given large economies of scale to produce a lower cost per gallon of milk. This dairy climate and the ranches here on the North Coast are unique in having relatively large acreage for a relatively small amount of cows, a mild climate and green pastures for a good part of the year.

All of those things add up to a unique appellation, no different than wine. But given the difference in economic prospects, the story of the value of our milk has to be told—it has to be getting into the marketplace to make sure that they remain viable and it’s our job to be the facilitator in that process.”

In addition to promoting the value of the unique terroir of Clover Stornetta milk and dairy products, the company took further action in 1994 to elevate their milk beyond ordinary commodity dairy by creating a set of criteria they refer to as the North Coast Excellence Certified program (NCEC). In exchange for their milk suppliers’ compliance with the rigorous demands of the NCEC, Clover Stornetta covers milk transportation costs, in addition to paying a premium above the state minimum pricing for “natural” conventional milk and above the then-market price for organic milk. According to Marcus, “NCEC is a long-winded name for all of the things that we do in addition to what we would otherwise have to do. It’s the no-antibiotics, nohormones and the no-cloning stances we take. It’s complying with the American Humane Society’s animal welfare standards and our sustainability standards. You wrap all that up and you have the NCEC—so the premium we pay is attached to that.”

In November 2000, Clover Stornetta became the first dairy in the United States to be certified by the American Humane Association (AHA) for their animal welfare program, American Humane Certified. They were also the first dairy west of the Mississippi to offer milk that was certified free of the growth hormone rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), also known as rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), a synthetic hormone used by some dairies to increase milk production. The use of rBST/rBGH is prohibited by the USDA in milk that is certified organic, and it has been banned by many countries including Canada and all 27 countries of the European Union.

Actually, the introduction by Monsanto of rBST/rBGH into the dairy marketplace was a turning point for Clover Stornetta. According to Joanie, “One of the things that my father [Dan Benedetti] did once he took the reins as president from my grandfather was to focus on how to differentiate ourselves. The introduction of rBGH was a big opportunity. Monsanto had been at our doorstep telling us it was the best thing ever and would revolutionize the way we did business and we’d make so much more money. We asked the hard questions: Is it in the milk? What does it do to humans and to cows? As a nursing mom, I was listening to this and thinking to myself, ‘Holy you-know-what—it can’t be OK for the cows. How on earth would my body feel if I started producing far more milk than my body would normally make?’ The bottom line is that we knew that our customers wouldn’t want this.”

Their decision, in the face of what Monsanto promised would be financial gain for the company, signaled that the powers that be at Clover Stornetta were paying attention to what their consumers wanted for themselves and their families—part of their “family to family commitment.”

The NCEC criteria also require their dairies to meet very strict limits on bacterial cell counts, as well as somatic cell counts, both early indicators of infections in dairy cows. NCEC standards for both are much more stringent than those set by both the US Food and Drug Administration and the State of California.

Clover Stornetta’s “fresh pasteurization” is another step that sets them apart. Joanie describes the process saying, “During our pasteurization process we heat the milk to 177°F. for 26 seconds and then cool it back down to below 40°F. This is a process scientifically validated to kill harmful organisms, which ensures the safety of the product, but we feel it is gentler on flavor than ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, so it preserves that fresh milk flavor.”

One reason UHT-treated milk tastes different is that the high heat caramelizes naturally occurring sugars in the milk. The process also destroys some vitamin content and alters proteins. Many dairy brands across the country use the UHT method because it gives their milk a longer shelf life. Notably, stabilizers must be added to UHT whipping cream or it won’t whip correctly, so dairy processors frequently add stabilizers to UHT cream and also half and half.

Marcus stresses that—in addition to taking all of these extra, often costly, steps—they must also educate consumers about their practices. “Once consumers are armed with everything [our] dairies do, they are fine paying an extra nickel a day for it every week and twice on Sunday. Because they aren’t just paying for the quality and the health, they are paying for a whole social commitment, and that’s pretty powerful.”

Protecting and preserving generations of family traditions, while moving ever forward to maintain the health of a modern-day dairy business, is clearly a lot of responsibility. I was curious about Marcus and Joanie’s thoughts on carrying on the family business. According to Marcus, “My grandfather was a good role model. So growing up as a kid, why wouldn’t I want to be a part of what he did? Seeing his and my dad’s relationship together—I thought, ‘Wow, I’d really like this with my dad.’ Work and family were synonymous and symbiotic.”

Joanie tried briefly to resist the lure of the family business. After attending Chico State, she interviewed with other companies, but her father was close to retiring as president and reminded her that this was a perfect time for him to teach her. Her cousins Mkulima Britt (now CFO) and Michael Benedetti (now quality assurance manager) had also joined the company by then.

Ultimately, she decided it would be a great thing to be part of the third generation stepping up to run the company and adds that they all got along really well as they were growing up. One rite of passage everyone seemed to enjoy were their stints dressing up as Clo the Cow and scooping free ice cream for the community at the Sonoma-Marin, Sonoma County and Napa County fairs.

Speaking of, Clo is one of the most unique members of the Clover Stornetta family. She’s a beguiling punster of a cartoon cow who came to life through the creative partnership between Dean Benedetti and “Mad Men”-style adman Lee Levinger brainstorming over three-martini lunches. Clo is now a community icon and her toothy smile can be seen in ads, as well as in person at one of her many community appearances.

This all adds up to a clear picture that Clover Stornetta’s second and third generations are building on a tradition of hard work and innovative thinking in order to increase the opportunities for their current suppliers and to position themselves to add additional dairies. Evidence of this are a new cheese project in the works for this year and plans to increase the distribution of their dairy products like cheese and butter.

Dean Benedetti passed away in 2006, but his legacy of family loyalty and tradition, combined with his willingness to innovate and take chances, continue to inspire those who blaze new trails looking for “better days through better ways,” at the company he founded.

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