Pathways: Profiles of Local Food Systems Changemakers

 Ian-Hero Serrano, R&D/Product Innovation Director & Joseph Button, Vice President of Sustainability and Strategic Impact, Straus Family Creamery

The food systems professionals speak on their experiences working in an organic dairy creamery.

June 12, 2024

By Melissa Cervantes, Isabel Martin, and Olivia Rounsaville

Ian-Hero Serrano

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Serrano: I grew up in the Philippines — I was there until I was 14 years old. It’s a small town, six hours north of Manila. It’s a beautiful town and I had a really fun childhood. I immigrated to the States when I was 14, and first moved to Hawaii and then moved to Santa Rosa. 

Early on, I knew that I was interested in the sciences. So I knew I had to do something with science when I decided to go to university. That’s what I did. I went to Cal Poly College of Science and Math and I studied molecular biology. I had no interest in working in food at all. But, I’ve always had an affinity for science and for how stuff works. After college, I was figuring out what to do next and I landed in this job at Straus Family Creamery. It was my first job out of college and I never looked back. 

How did you determine which part of the food system you wanted to focus on in your career search?

Serrano: It’s what was available at the time to be honest, and I just really wanted to figure out how my skills could translate into the real world. It just kind of made sense in the food system because, within the food system, you can get really technical, you can get into process related mechanisms, or you can do things like human resources and people stuff. I happened to land in the technical stuff within a quality system production facility and that’s kind of how I got started, and that’s where I’m at now. 

How has your background in science informed your position at Straus?

Serrano: It’s been very helpful. When you get into a position like this where it’s really focused on one specific thing — milk and dairy, my experience as a scientist-student helped me look past the noise and delve a deeper into the details to figure out what the narrative or story is. It can get really overwhelming and I think being able to sit back, read into something and really delve into the details and be analytical about it has been very, very helpful.

What is R&D and could you explain briefly what you do in your position?

Serrano: R&D stands for Research and Development. And in terms of the role of R&D in the supply chain, I would say it’s a conduit between sales and marketing and operations. I take insights from the sales and marketing side, looking into what the customer is asking for and the behaviors of the consumers, and apply that into a specific product to develop and produce. As that gets translated into the operations side, it needs to be designed properly to make sure that whatever the market is asking for gets translated to a good commercialized product. I also see it as a support function for operations. There’s a lot of technical aspects that I provide feedback on. The other part is the customer service aspect of this and making sure that you’re supporting the folks that are going to be handling the product that you’re developing.

Many people have this image of R&D of a person with a white lab coat, tinkering with stuff. I do that about a third of the time. I get specific projects and figure out how to make it — whether it be a different flavor of ice cream or different characteristics for a specific yogurt. That’s part of my job. Another big part of my job is project management and a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration with other departments. For a lot of companies, especially for somewhat medium-sized or small-sized companies like Straus, an R&D department is not expansive or very big. You really have to rely on your co-workers from other departments to work with you.

Are there any aspects of product development that you’ve had to learn because Straus is a certified organic product, versus if you were to be working with conventional dairy?

Serrano: In terms of product development from an organic space, we’re a lot more limited in terms of ingredients that we can use. I had to really delve into a lot of different processing techniques to see if we can take advantage of a specific tool or equipment that can stabilize a specific product organically.

We have a product called Extra Rich Barista. It’s a type of milk that foams really well and it’s used a lot by coffee baristas. The foam needs to be very stable. From a technical aspect, I can do a million things to stabilize it — different ingredients, different gums, a lot of like other stuff, but in an organic space, you can’t do that. So I had to really rely on looking at the milk — Is there a specific part of the milk that I can concentrate and amplify to make sure that it’s stabilized in the system? Is there a specific processing tool that I can use and leverage that’s acceptable in an organic space? And utilize those specific techniques. It does take a little bit longer, but I think at the end of the day, when things really work out, it’s really fulfilling. 

What advice do you have for current students exploring careers in the food system?

Serrano: A lot of the stuff that I do takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of certifications that you can take, lik you can be a certified food scientist, but nothing beats real world experience and getting your hands and feet dirty. That learning experience really does take time. It can really feel like you’re stuck, especially if you’re just getting started, but being able to push through and put in your best effort is important. You’ve got to understand that there’s always someone smarter and more of an expert about the stuff that we do here. It’s okay to not know everything at first because, with experience, that will come.

Joseph Button

What did you study and how did you end up at Straus Family Creamery?

Button: My background really starts in my early career working in social sustainability. For many years, I was involved in humanitarian development. Through that work I realized that agriculture plays a pivotal role in helping people and communities come out of cycles of poverty. Sustainable agriculture is essential to a global food system that supports rural communities and farmworkers and harvesters everywhere. When I was done working in that field, I decided to go get some expertise in business so that I could parlay what I had learned in the humanitarian field to make that work better, stronger. At the same time, I think my interest in agriculture grew and grew.

After I got my master’s in business administration, I also got a master’s degree in international environmental policy. I knew I didn’t want to focus on anything other than sustainable business. In particular, sustainable business in the agricultural world which brought together all those experiences — the social, the environmental, and the economic. It has really equipped me with the skills necessary to thrive in this role, and take on some of the greatest challenges in my career. Challenges like pursuing a carbon neutral dairy goal, something that hasn’t been achieved anywhere in the world today.

What is the significance of the organic certification in the Straus business model?

Button: In 1994, Albert Straus started the very first organic dairy farm West of the Mississippi, and that very same year he established the first 100% Organic Creamery in North America. What Albert Straus accomplished is establishing a bulkhead for the organic dairy community in the Western United States. He helped sustain and revive the dairy industry in Marin and Sonoma counties. Many of those dairy farms were going out of business because they could not compete with the scale of conventional dairy operations in Central California. He created a pathway for them to earn more for their milk by converting them to organic. The environmental implications and benefits of that on our local food system here in Marin and Sonoma County are tremendous.

We have always said that organic is the baseline and we’re going to continue to build on the beauty and the importance of organic. Organic is and always has been regenerative. Every organic dairy farm is required to put forward an organic systems plan that shows how they’re improving the health of their soil, the biodiversity of their farm, and so forth. When we talk about organic, it’s more than just a certification. It’s a method and it’s a practice that will help us achieve a sustainable food system, as it grows in influence and practice across our country.

How does Straus’ sustainability goals impact the work it does?

Our carbon neutrality goals have indeed changed the way we’re doing things in terms of establishing a sustainable food system. Is an overwhelming task and responsibility. I think we’ve had to learn the hard way that we can’t boil the ocean of sustainability. It’s impossible for any singular business to do that. But what we can do is focus on what our business is good at, how we’re working with our supplying farms, and really focus on the heart of our business. That comes down to farming, society, people and food systems. 

When we’re talking about carbon neutrality, that’s a really big term in the dairy industry. If you look at global greenhouse gas emissions, livestock agriculture accounts for over 14% of global GHG emissions and tackling such a large challenge is a really big deal. We’ve set our sights on establishing ourselves as leaders in this movement. We don’t want to just solve for our own business or our own supply chain, we want to create a replicable carbon neutral dairy model that can serve as an example not just for dairy farms globally. We believe in organic pasture based dairy farming and we’ve innovated with our partner dairy farms to create five to six practices that, when followed through on any dairy farm, can achieve net carbon neutrality. 

How does sustainable ingredient sourcing impact the final product?

It impacts it in more ways than you can imagine. Every product has a story. And the story of that product matters. What we’re trying to achieve at Straus is making sure that every product we put out the door has a story that we’re proud of. Now the question you might be wondering is can you taste the difference of a sustainable product? Well, it might require a refined palate. We source milk from Marin and Sonoma counties, from our 13 local dairy farms, and it really matters what we’re doing on the ground.

We have an initiative to make sure that every one of our supplying dairy farms has a carbon farm plan. A carbon farm plan is a 20 year regenerative agricultural plan that helps any agricultural operator or farmer advance the health of their soil, the biodiversity on their farm, and many other environmental things that we would all call good. When that plan is implemented, we end up with more biodiverse species of forage or grass and perennial species that dig deep into the local soils in this region. And when that happens, the grass picks up a unique terroir or unique flavor. The cows eat that grass and that ends up in the milk and there is a unique flavor from this region and the grasses of Northern California that do impart something special in our products. That might be hard to decipher if you’re not a dairy connoisseur, but I think it does make a difference and it’s exciting to know that climate smart agricultural products can and do taste different.

In terms of sustainability and relationship building, how does working with certified organic dairy producers compare with working with conventional dairy producers?

The short answer is there’s absolutely a big difference. Organic dairy farming is different than conventional dairy farming. Organic Dairy farming requires cows to have access to pasture for cows to eat that pasture and for the farmers to manage their land without the use of pesticides or herbicides. The goal of any organic operation, whether it’s row crops or livestock operation, is to maximize the environmental health and resilience of the ecosystem where the farm is. When you’re partnering and working with organic dairy farms, that is the primary focus.

Some folks have said, “Invest in your soil and your end product is going to be great.” We spend an inordinate amount of time building soil carbon through carbon sequestration practices so that the grasses that grow in the pastures on the farms where our cows graze are healthy. They’re helping to reverse climate change and they’re maximizing a biodiverse environment. That’s good for the planet and good for local ecosystems and the community.

Conventional dairy farms can also implement many great sustainability practices, and they’re doing that in California through climate work, but it’s a different type of operation where you have a lot more animals in a more fixed environment. That being said, conventional dairy farmers do have a great opportunity to also mitigate their climate impacts through practices like manure management, methane biodigesters, and in the future hopefully, feed supplements that reduce the enteric emissions or the natural burps from cows that are methane rich. 

Do you feel that producers in general are receptive to making changes to be more environmentally friendly?

Working with any producer farmer requires what I like to call a long conversation. To ask a dairy farmer to pursue a goal like net carbon neutrality, when it hasn’t been done anywhere in the world, requires a great deal of trust and it requires a friendship. I like to say, for Straus Family Creamery, that family is in the middle of the name and we very much view our supplying dairy farms as family members. In partnering with them and in approaching these goals that seem ambitious and new to them, it requires this long conversation. I’ve been doing this for seven years in our local dairy community. Over that time, I’ve been able to build trust and relationships with our supplying dairy farms. I have no doubt that it has required these many years to build a relationship where we can pursue these goals together. I can receive their honest feedback, in regards to how we can innovate to make the practices that we’re pursuing better and stronger.

What advice do you have for current students exploring careers in the food system?

The first thing I would say is go and get as much experience as you possibly can. Be an expert in something, but also understand that in order to be successful as a sustainable food system professional or a sustainable food economist or whatever you might want to pursue, you need to have diverse experience so that you can understand perspectives that vary from your own. It’s really important to understand the perspective of farmers. As a non-farmer, going on to a farm and asking farmers to pursue a given practice may not be received well if I don’t understand their point of view. At the same time, there’s many areas and facets of sustainability that I’m not an expert in. So, going around and meeting with peers that are experts in different areas, meeting with organizations, and going to conferences is beneficial. It’s so important to be a constant learner. Nobody has the perfect solutions yet. My main advice would be to pursue greater experience and really broaden your horizons in the pursuit of your goals and ambitions.

“Pathways: Profiles of Local Food Systems Changemakers” is a project of BFI’s Food Systems Career Development Program, funded in part by the USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). Aligned with TOPP, BFI focuses on workforce development in the areas of values-based supply chains and technical assistance for farmers in the organic industry.