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Cowgirl Creamery: a “green” & growing business
26 March 2009
George E. Pake Auditorium, PARC
A pioneer in the American artisan cheese movement, Cowgirl Creamery makes cheeses at their Point Reyes plant from certified organic milk and cream from the nearby Straus Dairy. Approximately 25% of the milk produced at the Straus Dairy is purchased by the creamery for the fabrication of organic artisan cheese. Whey leftover from cheesemaking is delivered to a local farmer to feed to his pigs. Both of Cowgirl Creamery's plants are further certified as organic food processors. This means that all aspects of the cheesemaking -- from the ingredients used in making the cheese to the materials used to clean the plant -- comply with the highest organic standards. In 2006, Cowgirl Creamery converted the Point Reyes plant to solar energy and expect to garner about 75% of their energy needs from the sun.
In addition to making, selling and distributing their own Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, they also distribute artisan cheeses from other producers in their region, America, and abroad. In June 2006, Cowgirl Creamery Artisan Cheese opened in Washington, D.C., offering an unrivalled selection of farmstead cheeses and accompaniments. To keep up with the demand for Cowgirl cheeses on the East Coast, a second production facility was built in Petaluma, just 20 miles east of the original Point Reyes creamery.
What is artisan cheese? Artisan cheese is very different from industrial cheese. Simply put, each cheese has a story, quite unlike commodity cheeses. Not only is it possible to name the cheesemaker who carefully coaxes cheese from small batches of milk, but it is also typical to identify the pasture and name the breed of cow, sheep or goat whose milk was used. Much of this fascinating information can be found online in Cowgirl Creamery's searchable database, the Library of Cheese http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/prodinfo.asp?number=CG. Seasonal cheeses reflect the nuances of changing forage on the milk and varying butterfat content. Artisan cheese is associated with variability, historic traditions, secrets of handling, and special yeasts and cultures that are added. Industrial cheese is known for year-round standardization and predictability.
Cowgirl Creamery co-founder Sue Conley had been a co-owner of the popular Bette's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley for 11 years before opening Cowgirl Creamery. She had also worked with small-scale cheese producers in western Marin County helping to market cow, sheep and goat cheeses, honing the knowledge that would eventually put her in charge of Cowgirl Creamery's production. Her office is at the Point Reyes plant, perched on the second floor where she can just about peer down through an open ceiling to the first floor cheesemaking plant.
Conley credits Ellen Straus, matriarch of the Straus Family Creamery, as an inspiration behind Cowgirl Creamery. For one, she came up with the "cowgirl" name. Moreover, Straus (now deceased) was one of the first activists in the U.S. for environmental conservation and was a founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), whose Board Conley now sits on. Early on, Straus recognized the importance of protecting land from development. She eventually articulated how conservation is not enough, that creating stable businesses on rural lands is just as important. This is a cause Conley has carried forward and is central to why she wants to support artisan cheesemakers. She points out that Marin County has become a model that can be, and is being, replicated elsewhere, such as in New York's Hudson Valley, many parts of Vermont, and in areas of Canada around Vancouver.
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