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It's all about the cheese

Sonoma County farms turning to niche products to preserve dairies, bolster bottom line

TOLUMA FARMS: Tamara Hicks founded Toluma with her husband, David Jablons, on a former cow dairy. They now milk a herd of 170 goats. MARK ARONOFF / The Press Democrat

Published: Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 3:32 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2007 at 9:00 p.m.

Inside Tomales' barn-red Town Hall, cheesemaker Sue Conley is pitching more than cheese.

She's promoting the North Bay's lush grasslands, likening the sweeping coastal hills to the great dairy provinces of Europe, a Normandy north of the gate, as it was once described.

"We should market our region the way they do in France," Conley said at a tasting and presentation for potential cheesemakers. "This is a great milk-producing region and we should play on that."

Both longtime dairy families and monied newcomers are heeding Conley's vision, joining the specialty cheese business that is building a cachet akin to Sonoma County wine. Proponents see it as a way to help preserve dairies, a North Bay agricultural tradition.

Sonoma County produces more milk than it did three decades ago, but there are far fewer cows and dairies. And adjusted for inflation, farmers are getting less than half of what they were paid in 1976.

To bolster the bottom line, they're increasingly turning to niche products such as organic milk and artisan cheeses.

Last month's Tomales event, sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension, brought Conley and other cheese aficionados to the heartland of Sonoma-Marin dairy country. They urged those in attendance, including farmers whose families had sold milk for generations, to join their ranks. A few present said they planned to do just that.

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