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William Straus -- pioneered organic dairy farming in West

Pamela J. Podger, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Private services will be held in Marin County today for William Straus, a prominent Marin County rancher who pioneered the first organic dairy in the West.

Mr. Straus died Sunday of heart failure at a Santa Rosa hospital. He was 88 years old.

Mr. Straus was an avid reader, a speechwriter for family gatherings and a lively storyteller when visitors dropped by his 660-acre Marshall ranch for instant coffee or a meal at the kitchen table covered with a red-checked oilcloth.

He was born Oct. 7, 1914, in Hamburg, Germany, and his passion for farming was shaped by his father, Albert, who received a doctorate in agriculture and longed for the ingenuity that farming demands. An only child, Mr. Straus was 4 years old when his father, a German officer in World War I, died of disease.

In 1936, Mr. Straus, whose family was Jewish, escaped the Nazi threat with his mother, Frieda Goldtree, by fleeing for four months to British-controlled Palestine and then to California.

In 1941, Mr. Straus purchased a small ranch near the west Marin County town of Marshall and started his dairy with 23 Jersey cows that he named after friends and relatives. Although he was a city person, he had studied agriculture at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1938 with a degree in animal husbandry.

Faced with a dearth of Jewish women to date in rural Marin County, Mr. Straus flew to Manhattan on a blind date in 1949 to meet Dutch-born Ellen Prins. Unfortunately, she had left for a holiday in Amsterdam. So Mr. Straus returned to New York months later and conducted a successful whirlwind courtship. They were married in New York, and in 1950 she moved to his ranch in Marshall .

His wife, a co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, was an outspoken advocate for meshing farming with environmental stewardship. They were married for 52 years until she died of a brain tumor in November.

"Bill was the much quieter and less gregarious one," said the trust's executive director, Robert Berner. "Ellen was on boards, went to meetings and projected their values. But there is no doubt that Bill was very firmly and deeply a partner in those views. They were pioneers who moved here in the late '30s as immigrant Jews. They faced some hostility and indifference at times. But they were open, embracing people, and the community eventually accepted and respected them."

Mr. Straus was a champion of environmentally friendly farming practices. He helped form the Tomales Bay Association, which serves as a forum for environmentalists and farmers.

In 1994, his eldest son, Albert, started the Straus Family Creamery's transition to becoming the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi. That niche market helped the dairy remain small, with about 270 Holstein cows in the milking herd. The family sold its glass-bottled milk, stenciled with artwork drawn by Ellen Straus, primarily in the Bay Area. Eventually, the dairy enjoyed a national following with sales of butter, yogurt and ice cream.

Sue Conley, who uses the Straus milk for savory cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery,

which she co-owns in Point Reyes Station, squired Mr. Straus out for Thursday night dinners after Ellen Straus died.

"Both Ellen and Bill had a worldliness," she said. "Bill was a very sophisticated intellectual, who read the New York Times every day and kept up on current events. Bill always thought that his father and his son were geniuses. What Bill called himself was the hyphen between two great men."

His son Michael recalled his father's sense of humor and yen for adventure, including the recent helicopter ride to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. But the dairy was his source of joy.

"When the doctor asked where he lived, my dad said on a farm in Marshall," he said. "He was so excited about the business and proudly told him about the ice cream, and cheese and yogurt. It was funny, with Dad telling a cardiologist to recommend all these high-fat products to his patients."

Alan Berkowitz said his father-in-law enjoyed reading German and Jewish literature. He had a varied life, inspired by philosophers and scientists, including Albert Einstein. One of Mr. Straus' cousins was Einstein's lab assistant.

"Bill had tea with Einstein at his office at Princeton University," Berkowitz said. "While Bill greatly admired him, they had a heated discussion once (when) Einstein said that synthetic cows would be the salvation of humanity."

A distant cousin, Ernest Dernburg, described the trademark speeches that Mr.

Straus would write for annual seder, Thanksgiving, birthdays and other occasions.

"What colored his world was that he was inordinately global in his view in everything," he said.

He is survived by four children: Albert and his wife Jeanne Smithfield of Marshall; Vivien Straus of Los Angeles; Miriam and her husband Alan Berkowitz of Salt Point, N.Y.; and Michael Straus of San Francisco; and four grandchildren.

Private funeral and memorial services will be held in the Marin County town of Olema today. The family requests that any donations in memory of Mr. Straus be made to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, P.O. Box 809, Point Reyes, CA 94956.

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