When Bill and Ellen Straus began their life together in 1949 running a small dairy ranch in Marin County, California, their dream was to make a decent living and raise a family through hard work and ingenuity. A family farm was born, but so was something else: a passion for the land that has since elevated the Straus family to luminary status within the sustainable farming and artisan food movements.
Theirs is an unusual story about reaching for the American dream and leaving things better than you found them — one generation at a time.
“My parents were icons in the efforts to preserve agricultural land from development,” says Michael Straus, the youngest of Bill and Ellen’s four children. “As our mom said, we all have to be activists. I think my siblings and I share that common bond of being really concerned about the environment. Each of us is trying to come up with solutions from our own perspective.”
Bill Straus escaped Nazi Germany and earned a degree in animal husbandry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1938. He met Ellen on a trip to New York City and married her in 1949. She and her family had also escaped the Nazis, fleeing their home in the Netherlands in 1940. He convinced Ellen, who was 12 years younger, to move out to California and help him run his dairy ranch just up the coast from San Francisco.
Along came Albert, Vivien, Miriam and Michael. Like other kids in the area, the Straus brood grew up working on the family farm, but they also felt different at times. “We were Jews, we were environmentalists and we were Democrats,” Michael says. “How many different ways could people stick out like a sore thumb in our community?”
Still, they watched and learned as their parents carved out a place for themselves, fighting to stop the surrounding countryside from morphing into a farm-free resort area and bedroom community of San Francisco.
Ellen in particular is perhaps best known for helping create the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980. The group has since protected 72 farms and dairies on more than 46,000 acres in the region. As the first agricultural land trust in the U.S., it has served as a model for hundreds of others across the nation. Check out the documentary “Rebels with a Cause,” which features interviews with Ellen and other pioneering land activists in the Bay Area.
“My parents were grateful to America for saving their lives and were in love with this land and the area,” Michael says. “Our house was always a home where people were constantly flowing through — environmentalists and ranchers alike — and my mom would somehow bring them all together with homemade pie. We were always surrounded by this idea of conservation, engagement, optimism and involvement in the community.”
Vivien Straus (from left), Phyllis Faber (co-founder of MALT), Michael Straus and Miriam Straus Berkowitz in 2014 at the old family farmhouse in Marin County, which has been converted into a vacation rental. (Photo: Courtesy of Straus family)
The next generation
The Straus children have continued the family legacy, each helping to transform the region into its latest incarnation — a hotbed of agritourism, artisan foods and farm-to-table goodness.
Albert converted the family dairy farm into the first certified organic creamery west of the Mississippi in 1994. Besides organic milk and cream, the Straus Family Creamery now also offers organic ice cream, Greek yogurt and NuScoop, a healthful low-glycemic, low-cholesterol frozen dessert.
Vivien, who began her career as an actress, came back to work as the creamery’s vice president of marketing for 11 years and continues to promote food tourism in Marin County (check out her CheeseTrail.org map and app).
Michael also worked at the creamery in public relations and sales, eventually opening his own PR firm to promote sustainable food and agriculture. Spurred by a “midlife crisis” that has led to interests in shamanic healing and mystical phenomena, he closed up shop in 2010 to backpack through Asia.
Miriam now lives in upstate New York and works as an agricultural educator and cheesemaker.
The story continues
Now back from his travels, Michael, along with sisters Vivien and Miriam, have embarked on their latest family venture: converting the Civil War-era home they grew up in into a vacation rental. Set on 160 bucolic acres near Tomales Bay, the Straus Home Ranch offers guests easy access to the local food scene and nearby scenic stunners like Point Reyes National Seashore.
The family also hopes the guest ranch will allow them to keep contributing to the region’s ever-evolving sustainable food revolution.
“I think my sisters and I wouldn’t be satisfied if this was just a vacation home,” Michael says. “Hopefully, we’ll be doing things like educational programs and farm-to-table dinners. We want to keep giving back to the community and staying engaged.”
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