Dairy owner Albert Straus never dreamed 19 years ago when he took over the family business that he would be pitching a business plan that featured cows inside city limits.

"I'm not even sure how the zoning for that would work," he said on Friday as he walked through his office space on Industrial Avenue at the north end of Petaluma.

But that's exactly what Straus would like to see happen within the next few years. The longtime organic dairy farmer, who opened the first organic dairy in western America and the first organic creamery in the United States, is currently embarking on a major company expansion.

The project will involve combining his 20,000 square foot food processing site, which is currently located in Marshall, with his 25,000 square foot office space. Straus is also hoping to add retail shopping and possibly a live dairy demonstration of the entire process his milk goes through — all the way from the "cow to the cup," as he put it — into a 100,000 square foot location. This is where possibly keeping some cows within city limits comes in. He plans for it to be completed in two years. Straus hopes that he will be able to locate his new site in Petaluma, but admits that he may have to look at other cities if the cost of wastewater treatment is too high.

Straus Family Creamery, which opened in 1994, was the brainchild of Straus. His parents, Bill and Ellen, began a small family dairy farm in the early 1940s in Marshall, with just 23 cows. By the 1970s, family dairies in Northern California were on the decline as large-scale dairies began to take over the industry. During that time, Straus returned home after finishing his Bachelor's degree in Dairy Sciences at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He took over management of the dairy with his father and realized that something had to change for his family's business to stay afloat.

At the time, the Straus dairy had already stopped using herbicides in an effort to protect the environment. Soon after, Straus began implementing no-till soil methods to prevent soil erosion and stopped using chemical fertilizers. He used food waste to feed cows and installed a manure wastewater pond system that turned solid waste into fertilizer and liquid waste into irrigation for pastures. Eventually, he converted the family farm into a completely organic operation called Straus Family Creamery.

"Organics was a natural progression for our business," Straus said. "We were always trying to preserve the agriculture and environment in Marin County. Then, with the conventional dairy industry being so (financially) bad, we made the shift to organics."

Today, Straus has more than 200 dairy cows on land in Marshall and also receives milk from about 7 other organic dairies. Straus Family Creamery's products are sold throughout the western United States. And Straus says he wants to expand his company to feature an educational component.

"It's important that people know where their food comes from, how to make it sustainable and what good land practices look like," said Straus. "Everything from the welfare of the animals to treating employees and each other with respect — it's all something that we would like to show the community through a demonstration dairy at our new site."

Straus said he sees a future demonstration dairy and combined facility as a place where students could learn about positive practices in agriculture. Currently, the company is a prime example of environmental friendliness, beating state and federal regulations for sustainability and clean practices. Approximately 94 percent of the creamery's wastewater is trucked to their dairy where it is reused in a methane digester that creates energy. After that, the water is used for irrigating pastures.

But as the business works to expand to meet growing demand for its products, Straus says he has been forced to look at several locations for expansion, from Rohnert Park to Novato, because of the high cost of hooking into Petaluma's wastewater treatment facility.

"Petaluma is really our preferred city, but we'd be looking at about $1 million in just initial wastewater costs alone," said Straus, adding that he is working with the city to find a solution to the massive expense. In fact, the city council made it a goal at its recent yearly goal setting session after hearing from Straus and other businesses who are having difficulties affording wastewater treatment in Petaluma.

Ever the innovator, Straus said that he has spoken with Cowgirl Creamery, another local organic creamery that is facing substantial city wastewater treatment costs, about joining together to create a processing hub.

"They have similar high costs involved with joining the city's wastewater plant, and have expressed an interest in working together at the processing level," said Straus.

At a recent city council meeting, Cowgirl Creamery owner Sue Conley submitted a letter stating that high wastewater treatment costs have forced her to look into other locations for her business.

In the meantime, Straus said he is pressing forward with vision for expansion. He is hoping to have a site secured within the next three to six months and hopes to open his new location in two years.

"Wherever we wind up, we're hoping to be in a community that supports a local and organic food system," Straus said. "We hope it can be here in town because this city has been wonderful."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)