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It's all about the cheese

Toluma Farms
TOLUMA FARMS: Tamara Hicks founded Toluma with her husband, David Jablons, on a former cow dairy. They now milk a herd of 170 goats. MARK ARONOFF / The Press Democrat

Sonoma County farms turning to niche products to preserve dairies, bolster bottom line


Inside Tomales' barn-red Town Hall, cheesemaker Sue Conley is pitching more than cheese.

She's promoting the North Bay's lush grasslands, likening the sweeping coastal hills to the great dairy provinces of Europe, a Normandy north of the gate, as it was once described.

"We should market our region the way they do in France," Conley said at a tasting and presentation for potential cheesemakers. "This is a great milk-producing region and we should play on that."

Both longtime dairy families and monied newcomers are heeding Conley's vision, joining the specialty cheese business that is building a cachet akin to Sonoma County wine. Proponents see it as a way to help preserve dairies, a North Bay agricultural tradition.

Sonoma County produces more milk than it did three decades ago, but there are far fewer cows and dairies. And adjusted for inflation, farmers are getting less than half of what they were paid in 1976.

To bolster the bottom line, they're increasingly turning to niche products such as organic milk and artisan cheeses.

Last month's Tomales event, sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension, brought Conley and other cheese aficionados to the heartland of Sonoma-Marin dairy country. They urged those in attendance, including farmers whose families had sold milk for generations, to join their ranks. A few present said they planned to do just that.

"We just see an opportunity to add a business that would be complementary," said Rick Lafranchi, whose family has owned a Marin County dairy for nearly 90 years. The family, including Lafranchi's two sisters and two brothers, have hired an architect to design a creamery for making cheese on their ranch in the Nicasio Valley.

Three decades ago, the region's artisan cheeses were crafted by a few pioneers, including Marin French Cheese, Vella Cheese, Sonoma Cheese and Laura Chenel's Chèvre.

Today, even as the number of dairies is decreasing, the number of North Bay cheesemakers has grown to more than a dozen and their products are moving onto shelves of top-flight restaurants and food stores across the country. Leading cheesemakers, like their cousins in the wine industry, are garnering increasing recognition with national and occasionally international awards.

With that success as a model, mainstream dairies and new entrepreneurs with hundreds of acres of prime grazing land are developing plans to move into the market. Growing demand, in turn, has spurred expansion of creameries where the milk -- not just from cows, but also from goats and sheep -- is made into high-end cheeses sold for top dollar across the county.

Recent developments show the signs of growth:

Toluma Farms, located just two miles from Tomales, was founded in 2003 by a husband and wife team who purchased land that had been home to a cow dairy for generations.

Owners David Jablons, a cancer surgeon, and Tamara Hicks, a clinical psychologist, this spring began milking a herd of 170 goats and hope one day to produce their own farmstead cheeses.

They created the farm name from a blend of Tomales and Petaluma, the two towns to which their mail is addressed.

Frog's Leap Winery founder John Williams and Long Meadow Ranch's Ted Hall, both of Napa County, are partners in an effort to develop a dairy and creamery for artisan cheeses on a 500-acre ranch near Tomales that had long been a home to cattle and sheep.

An 800-acre ranch near Marshall is planned to become a sheep dairy and creamery by Marcia Barinaga, a former Science Magazine writer, and husband Corey Goodman, a former UC Berkeley professor and the new head of drugmaker Pfizer's Bay Area research organization.

Expanding production

As the market grows, there also have been efforts to boost production:

Larry Peter, who founded his Spring Hill Dairy 20 years ago in the Two Rock area, began producing artisan cheese in 1998, touting the milk of his pastured-grazed Jersey cows.

He has reopened Petaluma's historic creamery with plans to start cheese production there before spring.

Conley and partner Peggy Smith, former restaurateurs who started the Marin-based Cowgirl Creamery a decade ago, are building a new cheesemaking plant in Petaluma. It will allow them to eventually more than triple production, to 10,000 pounds a week.

The company, which also distributes other makers' cheeses, has stores in Point Reyes Station, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Interest is growing rapidly. Two years ago, Conley became a founding member of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, and this past March she spoke at the first California Artisan Cheese Festival, which drew more than 1,000 consumers and producers to Petaluma.

Far from shooing off potential competitors, the cheesemakers see increasing their numbers as a boon for themselves and the region.

"It's just going to create more and more customers," said Jennifer Bice, part of the family that owns artisan cheesemaker Redwood Hill Farm.

Three years ago, her family's Redwood Hill Farm opened a new creamery in a portion of an old apple processing plant on the northern edge of Sebastopol.

Some of the milk used for their cheese and yogurt production comes from Tom and Heidi Kirkland, who first started O Tommy Boy! organic potatoes, and two months ago began milking 120 goats on their family ranch east of Valley Ford.

Dairy's story

The North Bay has a storied dairy history. Aided by its abundant rainfall and mild winters, Point Reyes became the state's first commercial dairy region 150 years ago, sending butter and cheese by schooner to San Francisco. For years Marin County led the state in milk production.

But dairies, once Sonoma County's top farm operations, have undergone a shakeup over the past three decades. Last year, the county's dairies received $67 million for their milk. In comparison, the milk sold here in 1976 would have been worth $170 million in 2006 dollars.

Sonoma County is producing more milk today than it did three decades ago and doing it with fewer cows. The county herds have declined to 30,000 milk cows, compared with a peak of 56,000 in 1962.

The increased output, similar across the country, is attributed to improvements in cattle breeding, nutrition, milking systems, health care and other management techniques.

In the future

Today, California leads the nation in milk production and is poised in the next few years to overtake Wisconsin as the nation's top cheese state.

Artisan and specialty cheeses make up about 11 percent of the state's 2.2 billion pounds produced last year, according to the California Milk Advisory Board. Most cheese made today is mozzarella or block cheddar.

Over the past decade, 27 of the North Bay's 110 dairies have switched to producing organic milk, a way to earn more money than by selling conventional milk.

Cheesemakers and farm officials say specialty cheese is another way to sustain the region's dairies by commanding a premium price for their product.

"We live in the high-rent district," said Bice, "and you can't do commodity crops, commodity wine, commodity cheese."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285

or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.