Bay Area Bites Guide to Local Dairies and Creameries

Saint Benoit's milk is sold in glass jars. (St. Benoit Creamery)

If you drive through Marin or Sonoma, chances are you'll see thousands and thousands of dairy cows. The area has long been the main provider of milk and dairy products in Northern California. And in recent years, the vast majority of those farms have gone organic. Seems like it should be easy, then, to buy delicious, fresh, local, organic milk, right?

Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than just ringing up the milkman.

Because of the economics of distributing milk widely -- processing it, pasteurizing it, bottling it, and getting it into stores, all while making sure it complies with federal health and safety regulations within a short shelf life -- most local dairies simply don't find it feasible to sell their milk directly to consumers. The milk from the vast majority of the cows you see is sold to a distributor -- ie. a larger milk and dairy company.

Now, fortunately, around here there are a few very good companies to sell to. Many of the local organic dairy farms sell their milk either to Straus Family Creamery or to Clover Stornetta Farms. Straus, based in Marin, was the first certified organic dairy in the west and makes a whole range of organic dairy products now, which it sells at many Bay Area stores. (Check their website for store locations.) Clover, based in Petaluma, has been around since the early 1900s and focuses on organic, sustainable dairy products, which are also sold at many, many Bay Area stores. (Check their website for locations.)

With those as the two main purveyors of organic milk in the Bay Area, the other options are somewhat limited. Some local farmers instead sell to Organic Valley, a national co-op of farmers that has a California branch. And, around the Bay Area, Berkeley Farms is also a popular choice for dairy farmers to contract with. Berkeley Farms is a brand of the national company Dean Foods, and Berkeley Farms sells Horizon Organics' products as a distributor of the brand. But Horizon Organics is actually a brand of WhiteWave, which spun-off from Dean Foods in 2013 -- though that Horizon line has come under some criticism in the past. It, however, was found to be meeting all the federal organic standards and has said that it holds up the highest standards of care. (Or, if you're looking for raw milk, the two main California options are based a little further afield: Claravale Farms in Panoche or Organic Pastures in Fresno.)

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We, then, instead, went in search of local Bay Area creameries and dairies that offered other options. While there are countless cheesemakers -- in fact, many of the dairies that sell to Straus or Clover keep a certain amount of their own milk to make cheeses -- we were looking for other non-cheese dairy products. Here are a few of our favorites. If we missed your favorite, let us know in the comments.

Saint Benoît is one of the rare local, organic dairies that sells its own milk directly to consumers. It does that in glass bottles -- both small grab-and-go sizes and larger servings -- which you put a deposit on and return after you're done. The whole milk is from about 500 Jersey cows, who roam on 1,000 acres of land at the dairy farm outside Petaluma. That milk is then vat-pasteurized at the creamery on the farm, which allows it to be heated to a much lower temperature. While Saint Benoît sells thousands of bottles of milk now, the company's first passion was its yogurt. When Benoît de Korsak and his brother, David, founded the creamery in 2004 it was all about the French-style yogurt of their youth: yogurt that's smooth, mild, and has very little added to it. Their Meyer lemon French-style yogurt won a Good Food award earlier this year. Now they sell yogurt, milk, a kind of coffee milk, yogurt cheese, and ice milk -- like ice cream but without the cream. The goal is sustainable, healthy, fresh products that you'd want to eat and want your kids to eat. Saint Benoît's milk is only sold in California at local stores and farmers markets, but its other products are sold nationwide.

Saint Benoît
1796 Pepper Rd. [map]
Petaluma, CA 94952
Hours: No public hours
Where to buy: Online at GoodEggs.com; at San Rafael Civic Center Farmers Market, Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Temescal Farmers Market, and others; at most Bay Area natural food stores -- see full list of locations on their website
Facebook: Saint Benoît Creamery

Since 1938, the McClelland family have been dairy farmers in Sonoma and Marin. In fact, McClelland's Dairy in Petaluma, headed up by the McClelland parents and their daughter, Jana, is just one of two local dairies run by different branches of the family. (The other is operated by Jana's brother and his wife, Jolynn, herself an heir of another long-standing dairy family.) McClelland's Dairy has about 1,000 milking cows, and another few hundred babies and non-milking cows at any point, on over 500 acres. While the main farm houses the milking barn and a barn where the cows can come inside when it's too rainy or hot, the dairy also has a number of other ranches around the area. Once the babies reach a certain age, they're sent to one farm to graze and grow. Another farm houses the chickens, whose eggs can help sick cows with digestion issues, and a herd of goats. The whole operation is finely tuned, with a rotation system for the cows and a nutritionist taking care of all their dietary needs. For the last dozen years, the farm has been all organic. During dry seasons, the cows are fed organic grass mixed with nutrients, like kelp and aloe vera. Most of the dairy's milk is sold to Organic Valley, a national co-op for organic farmers. In California, Organic Valley has about seven farmers, who it then collectively serves as the distributor for. In 2003, McClelland's also began selling butter, which is made at the Petaluma Creamery. And, the farm now sells its fresh eggs, squashes, and lavender bundles as well. In October, they also operate a pumpkin patch on weekends -- with a hay bale maze and games for the kids.

McClelland's Dairy
6475 Bodega Ave. [map]
Petaluma, CA 94952
Ph: (707) 664-0452
Hours: No public hours; pumpkin patch open Sat-Sun, 10am-5pm
Where to buy: Milk - through the co-op Organic Valley; check Organic Valley's website for store locations. Butter and farm produce - online or at local stores -- see full list of locations on their website
Facebook: McClelland's Dairy
Twitter: @mcclellanddairy
Pinterest: McClelland's Dairy

If you want to try something a little different, but still so tasty, Haverton Hill is the premier local purveyor of sheep's milk. The 378-acre farm, closer to Valley Ford than Petaluma, produces and sells sheep's milk, along with one-of-a-kind sheep's milk ice cream and sheep's milk butter. (While they have plans to make their own cheeses eventually as well, right now the farm sells some of its milk to Bellwether Farms, which makes sheep's milk cheese and yogurt.) Started in 2010 by Joe and Missy Adiego, and Joe's parents, Haverton Hill is the family's attempt to get back to the land. Though the two initially thought of raising goats, they ultimately decided to go with something not many people do around here: sheep. There are now about 900 sheep -- though only 350 to 700 are milking at any given time, depending on the season. Along with the main farm, the family also has another 130 acres that's predominantly for the baby sheep, and leases some 100 acres nearby for pasture at certain times of the year. Though the milk isn't certified organic, because the sheep are fed non-organic alfalfa, the pastures are all organic. In 2014, Haverton Hill also opened a very small creamery on the main farm to make ice cream and butter. But it's a small operation. Milk is bottled just twice per week and the whole thing is run by the family and one employee, who was hired when Missy was pregnant with their third kid.

Haverton Hill
5110 Bloomfield Rd. [map]
Petaluma, CA 94952
Ph: 707-665-5457
Hours: No public hours
Where to buy: At many Bay Area Whole Foods stores and at a number of natural food stores -- see full list of locations on their website
Facebook: Haverton Hill Creamery
Twitter: @HavertonHill
Instagram: MissyAdiego

Redwood Hill Farm started in the late-1960s, when the idea of goat milk and goat milk cheese was much less accepted than it is today. Jennifer Lynn Bice took over for her parents in the late 1970s and over the years the operation has massively expanded -- as has the public acceptance of goat milk. Now, the main 20-acre farm is home to 300 goats and the company contracts with eight other farms to buy their milk as well. While its goat milk products aren't certified organic, Redwood Hill Farm was the first goat farm to be certified humane and now all the farms it works with have to be certified humane as well. In 2004, they opened a fairly large creamery in Sebastopol to make goat milk kefir, goat milk yogurt, and goat cheese. While Redwood Hill Farm stopped selling pure goat milk a few years ago, they did launch an organic lactose-free line in 2010, called Green Valley Organics. Green Valley Organics makes kefir, yogurt, sour cream, and cream cheese. The idea is that many people who have trouble processing dairy find goat milk products easier to digest -- and, in turn, tasty lactose-free products. The company's cheeses are only sold on the West Coast, but the rest of its yogurts, kefirs, sour creams, and cream cheese can be found around the country.

Redwood Hill
2064 Gravenstein Hwy. North, Building 1 [map]
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Ph: (707) 823-8250
Hours: No public hours
Where to buy: At stores nationwide -- see full list of locations
Facebook: Redwood Hill Farm
Twitter: @RedwoodHillFarm

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*Correction: This article previously mistakenly stated that Horizon was a brand of Dean Foods and of Berkeley Farms, instead of a brand of its spin-off WhiteWave.

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