Ellen Straus, 75; Pioneer in Farmland Preservation Effort
Ellen Straus, the Marin County dairy farmer shunned fifty years ago by the local agricultural community who went on to become the face of the farmland preservation movement in the Bay Area and a pioneer of organic dairy farming, died Saturday. She was 75.
Straus died of brain cancer at the family farm bordering Tomales Bay north of San Francisco, said her daughter Vivien.
Outside the Bay Area, Straus was better known as the pioneer of the burgeoning California farmstead cheese movement and gourmet trade in high-end butters, yogurts and cream products.
Within her family, she was known as someone with the sublimely tactful ability to lead people without their knowing she was doing it, a quality her son Michael called “the gestalt of Mom.”
Ironically, her beginnings could scarcely have been less agricultural. Straus was born Ellen Tirza Lotte Prins to a Jewish family in Amsterdam. She was 13 when her family fled the Nazi invasion of Holland for New York City.
She had completed a science degree at Bard College when a German-born family acquaintance, Bill Straus, came to call. “Actually, he came twice,” she liked to boast. “The first time I wasn’t there.”
He was a rare suitor: a Jewish dairy farmer. European Jews were traditionally restricted to towns, but Straus’ family had come to the U.S. from Hamburg to study agriculture at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, then stayed when World War II broke out. When Straus came courting in 1949, he was already the owner of a small farm on the shores of Tomales Bay, replete with 23 cows named after family and friends. After 16 days, he proposed, adding, “Hurry up. I have to get back to my cows.”
Three months later, they were married. “It was like moving to paradise,” she recalled in a speech before the American Farmland Trust in 1998. But, while the Dutch New Yorker loved California, not all Northern Californians loved her.
“The Strauses really tried to be part of the community, but the ranching community froze them out,” said Phyllis Faber, a local wetland biologist. “They were Jewish and they were newcomers, so the Strauses turned to east Marin, the Democratic Party and Marin Conservation League.”
Straus served on the Democratic Central Committee from 1959 to 1970 before her attention turned to conservation. John Alden, chairman of the Marin Democratic party, said Straus led the way in alerting dairy farmers to the impact of manure runoff on Tomales Bay, and the local oyster fisheries. “Ellen Straus’ dairy was the most aggressive in starting to spray the fields to wash manure into retaining ponds,” Alden said.
But as milk prices fluctuated and dairy farmers increased their herd sizes (and manure loads) in an attempt to avert bankruptcy, another threat loomed for the Marin ranchers: suburban development. For many farmers, it became easier to grow housing developments than food.
“Zoning just didn’t stop it,” said Faber. In the mid-1970s, Faber and Straus went to the Trust for Public Land and proposed an agricultural land trust, the first of its kind, in which a trust purchased the right to develop land from farmers. In 1980, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust was born. “At the time, ranchers felt that it was just for ranchers who were failing,” said Faber. But today 47 ranches covering nearly 32,000 acres and 30% of Marin farmland have the easements.
In 1993, with farm conservation in full swing, the Straus family led the next revolution in Northern California dairying. While most of the state’s farmers were steadily increasing herd sizes from 300 to 400 to 500 head of cattle just to stay in business, Bill and Ellen Straus’ son Albert found a way for farmers in the ecologically sensitive strip along Tomales Bay to reduce herd sizes. They left the swollen wet milk market of co-ops and processors and formed the Straus Family Creamery, which would produce only specialty “value-added” dairy products: bottles of unhomogenized milk, old-fashioned cream, yogurt and European-style butter. In 1994, it became the first fully organic dairy in the state.
Straus was so proud of her son and the family creamery that she wasted no opportunity to promote it. Earlier this year, when taken to an oncologist after suffering piercing headaches, she inquired if her doctor liked dairy products. “Oh, yes, Mrs. Straus,” he replied. “I love yogurt. But your yogurt is too expensive.”
On the next trip to the same doctor, after being told that she had an inoperable brain tumor, she whispered something to her daughter Miriam, who said to the doctor, “My mother’s dying wish is that you try her yogurt.”
That yogurt, now sold throughout California, was so successful in chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods that it alerted rival farmers to an alternative to the liquid milk market, whose low returns were driving so many from the land. If the farmers kept their milk rather than selling it to processors, then made a farmstead yogurt, cheese or butter, they could not only make a better product and more money, but do it with fewer cows.
Two years ago, this led the largest dairy bordering the bay, owned by Robert Giacomini, a longtime critic of Straus, to halve his enormous herd and go into cheese production. The California Milk Advisory Board picked up on the movement with the “It’s the Cheese” campaign.
Sue Conley, founder of the Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes, started what is now one of the country’s leading specialist cheese shops in the mid-1990s with the Straus Family Creamery as her leading supplier. “The thing about Ellen,” she said, “if you read a conventional obituary, you would think she’s the most serious, stern person because she was incredibly ethical about her causes. But what that wouldn’t show are the incredibly witty and whimsical sculptures she did of cows. She was funny and fun and light, and she wouldn’t have done any of it unless it was fun.”
Robert Berner, executive director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, thinks it is not so strange that a Jewish girl from the Netherlands who had no farming background saved Marin’s dairy industry from property developers and helped start the organic dairy movement in the West. Straus was an incorrigible optimist. “Not very many people really believe that they can change the world. Ellen was one of those few people who not only believed it, but tried.”
In addition to her husband and four children, Straus is survived by a sister, Anneke Prins Simons; and four grandsons.