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Cowgirl Creamery: Reinventing the Wheel 

Wednesday, Nov 4 2015

I'm petting a dewy-eyed, black-and-white calf that's only a few days old. The calf's left ear is tagged with the number 999, which seems somehow auspicious.

Late October is fly season at Bivalve Dairy, in west Marin County near Point Reyes Station and above Tomales Bay, but the calf doesn't seem bothered by the bugs (of which there are many) or by the little mounds of manure in its trapezoid-shaped pen. I learn that calves, with their propensity to suckle at everything in sight, have to be kept apart lest they transmit diseases to one another. This one isn't shy, holding its freckly muzzle aloft to get an unobstructed whiff of me, its fellow newborns, the blackbirds and starlings that are eating the flies, and the great wide world of which it is newly a part.

As far as cattle in America go, this Holstein is lucky. It will spend most of its life wandering outdoors, feeding on the pasture. Animals are participants in the morality play that is the American industrial food system. But unlike the millions of future hamburgers that live in filthy, cramped conditions, shot up with antibiotics until an accelerated timeline delivers them to the killing floor, No. 999 will be pampered by sixth- and seventh-generation dairy farmers for a decade or longer.

This calf is a living example of the new California culinary order, centered on west Marin and Sonoma. At the vanguard of this movement is a top-tier artisanal cheese producer called Cowgirl Creamery.

Cowgirl remains small enough that its principals recently had to apologize to Whole Foods: They had reached capacity and could not supply any additional cheese to the Austin-based grocery giant.

Yet Cowgirl punches well above its weight.

Future business partners Peggy Smith and Sue Conley met at the University of Tennessee. They came west to California in a hippie van, Tales of the City-style, in 1976, and both went straight into kitchens. Smith cooked under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, while Conley worked for Bette's Oceanview Diner and, eventually, for Albert Straus, just as the eco-conscious Petaluma dairy farmer was "training stores to wash the glass milk bottles and send them back," Conley says.

When a planned deal with dairy co-op Clover Stornetta fell through at the last second, Conley scrambled to find other distributors for Straus, a crisis that yielded lasting business contacts. From there, she launched a company called Tomales Bay Foods that aimed to distribute all of west Marin's locally produced foods — most of which turned out to be cheeses. After securing a contract to serve cheese from a little-known Santa Rosa producer called St. George in Lufthansa's first-class section, and later to Whole Foods, the company that would become Cowgirl Creamery began taking shape.

Meanwhile, the rules of organic certification began to coalesce around a set of shared principles, governed by an ethos that no element of the process was too small to warrant tender, loving care.

"In '97, we started making cheese. We were the first permit application the county had seen since before World War II. They had no idea how to deal with us," Conley said. "They said, 'Just have the state do it. We don't want to know what you're doing.' Today, there are 30 cheesemakers in Sonoma and Marin."

From its roots in Point Reyes Station, Cowgirl added another production facility in Petaluma, and eyed an expansion to San Francisco — specifically the Ferry Building, which Conley calls the city's "living room."

Starting as a vendor at the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture's farmers markets, Cowgirl was one of the original tenants when therestored landmark reopened in 2003 (along with other Bay Area institutions Acme Bread, McEvoy Ranch, and Peet's Coffee). There likely would have been more occupants, but Cowgirl's SideKick Café & Milk Bar opened shortly after the dotcom crash.

As it happened, signing a lease during a recession scored Cowgirl a sweet corner spot.

"They gave us the prized location because we were so brave," Conley said.

Now, it is hard to imagine the Ferry Building Marketplace — or, indeed, Bay Area cheese as a whole — without Cowgirl Creamery.

"What makes Cowgirl Creamery unique is that Sue and Peggy have devoted a significant portion of their time and resources over the years to supporting small and up-and-coming artisan cheesemakers," said Marcy Coburn, CUESA's executive director. "This is similar to the old-world guild system where expert artisans would pass on their knowledge to those seeking to learn a trade."

"Cheesemaking is a craft," she adds, "and Cowgirl Creamery has made it possible for the ancient traditions of cheesemaking to live on in the modern era."

The situation is symbiotic. "It went with our philosophy," Conley said. "They wanted the best of the best local companies in here, and it created an identity for our city in the same way we were trying to create an identity for our milkshed."

"Milkshed" is a term you hear a lot when hanging around Cowgirl. In a strict sense, a milkshed refers to the local dairy region that overlaps Marin and Sonoma. But it also refers to the land itself.

Bucolic west Marin is well protected and tightly restricted. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), which protects 48,000 acres across 76 farms, imposes mandatory agriculture on the land it stewards, so that even if someone with no interest in farming purchases a property, he or she must lease it to someone who will keep it under cultivation.

And because the wet, foggy land is inhospitable to sun-dependent viticulture — and has historically been home to dairies — the milkshed's cows, together with Marin's famous oysters and the local olive industry that began with Nan McEvoy, are virtually synonymous with the gross regional product.

However high-end a monoculture of Pinot Noir may be, to Conley, that's simply not sustainable.

Vineyards don't "give us a local food supply," she said. "It's nice to have some wine, but all wine is not great." Between the dairies, the olives, and the oysters, "we can create a nice, local menu in Point Reyes, and it's becoming more popular as a food destination. It's always been about nature, but that's a nice combination."


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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