Straus Family Creamery recently turned 17, and I started thinking back to those crazy times.
In 1989, my older brother Albert, who’d been managing the farm and doing some pretty innovative things — including feeding our cows leftovers from a local sake factory … but that’s another story — decided to convert the farm to organic. He wanted to bottle his own milk, make ice cream, and make enough money to support the farm without having to either grow bigger (one major trend) or go out of business (the other major trend). California had already lost 90% of all dairies – from 20,000 in 1940 when our dad starting farming, to 2,000 in the late 1980s.
That year our farm became the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi.
Fast forward four years, to 1993, when Albert decided we needed to take all of that milk and start bottling it.
But as we had only managed to raise a tiny fraction of the capital required to build our own factory and, as the bills were piling up – it’s expensive to convert an entire farm to organic – Albert had to move fast. He decided to convert an existing building at the former Synanon ranch in in our sleepy town of Marshall, CA, where the town sign has always read (and still does to this day) 'Marshall, Pop 50, Elev 15.'
Back then, I was working at Jewish Vocational Services in San Francisco, as a job counselor for newly arrived émigrés from the (newly) former Soviet Union. I had recently returned from spending a year in Israel (during the first Gulf War), trying to prove that I could hold down a normal, non-cow-milking or shit-shoveling gig. After that, I planned to travel the world!
One evening, Albert called, asking if I could help. He was under a lot of stress, and we needed to get that factory up and running NOW. The future of the farm depended on it. My parents, ever supportive, were totally flipping out.
Of course, I said yes.
There’s a scene from Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life that has always haunted me … the one in which he’s about to board a train to travel the globe and, at the last possible moment, decides to stay in Bedford Falls to help save the family business.