Vanessa Alexandre communes with her family’s A2/A2 cows as they graze on rich organic pasture in Crescent City, California. Photos courtesy of Alexandre Family Farm, unless noted.

 

A Northern California farm family brings nutrient-dense dairy products to the East Bay

By Colleen Riordan

What’s new in dairy? High-tech apps, perhaps?

Maybe not so much. Trending terms in the lexicon of dairy innovation are more along the lines of “sustainable nutrition” and “holistic landscape ecology.”

These developments actually began a quarter century ago in the Bay Area when family-owned innovators Straus Family Creamery and Clover Stornetta (now Clover Sonoma) racked up firsts in certified organic and certified humane animal treatment. Both rejected GMO-laced feed and recombinant bovine growth hormone in spite of the promises of higher yields and higher profits. Those moves by these exemplary local companies were a way of holding to (or returning to)tradition in order to go forward toward sustainability. That’s also been the path taken at a handful of micro-dairies around the Bay who are experimenting with marketing raw milk, lauding it as more nutritious even as the medical community at large still deems it unsafe.

But here’s a term that’s definitely trending: A2 milk. This nutrient-dense form of the white stuff (which its advocates claim is more digestible than the more common A1 variety) is produced by cows with just the right breeding. And the scoop this summer is that it’s arrived here in the East Bay.

Oh, and just to be clear, no cows are returning to authenticate the old Berkeley Farms rhetorical tagline, “Farms in Berkeley?” These A2 milk–producing cows live up north in California’s Humboldt and Del Norte counties under the care of the Alexandre family on their Alexandre Family Farm. The milk is trucked in to the urban East Bay to be processed and bottled right in the midst of the Alexandres’ target market of Bay Area consumers interested in getting the most nutrition and richest taste from their dairy products. The location is the small Pavel’s Yogurt facility in San Leandro, where the Alexandres are sharing and adding to the legacy company’s equipment while retaining its employees, who will continue making and packing Pavel’s
beloved brand. 

left: At the plant in San Leandro, Dalton Alexandre checks on the vat mixing the ginger and turmeric flavoring into the family’s 6{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} butterfat A2 milk. Above, right: Jose Enrique Rodriguez, a 20-year veteran employee of Pavel’s Yogurt, now packs both Pavel’s and Alexandre’s products for distribution. Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

What Is A2?

“We’ve been breeding this A2/A2 gene into our herd for over 15 years now to produce a herd that is 100{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} A2/A2,” says Vanessa Alexandre, the middle sibling of five young Alexandres who are making their parents proud of the farm’s fifth generation through their passion and commitment. “It’s been a purposeful mission to produce milk with this more digestible milk protein.”

American consumers are only just learning about A2 milk, primarily via a literal pouring in of product from the New Zealand–based a2 Milk Company, which works with family farmers in southern California and Nevada to produce its milk, according to a2 Milk Company spokesperson, Andrea Helling.

As Vanessa explains, cow milk can carry either A1 or A2 beta-casein proteins, and because of a single unique amino acid, humans digest the A1 protein differently than A2. When the body processes A1, a peptide is released that can cause symptoms similar to lactose intolerance.

Vanessa’s father, Blake Alexandre, adds that A1 appears to be a mutated gene, which cows might not carry in places like India, where the breeds have long lineages.

The Alexandres run over 3,500 cows on 4,000 holistically managed acres across four farms in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The moist coastal climate combined with organic practices allows them to sustainably pasture their cows 365 days a year.

Through selective breeding of New Zealand Friesian, Jersey, and Ayrshire with German Fleckvieh cows, the Alexandres have built their own genetic composite: a short-statured, wide-bodied cow that can walk long distances to pasture, graze, and then produce a high butterfat, nutrient-filled milk. Looking out over the Alexandre’s pastures, one sees cows of all different colors, not just the standard black-and-white Holsteins, a breed that accounts for well over 90{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of the nation’s dairy stock (according to Holstein Association USA).

“Early on, we were looking for foreign genetics for grass-based cows, which is different from [what’s done in] American dairy farming. We wanted the cow who has to work for her food,” says Stephanie Alexandre, who raised her five children on nutrient-dense foods and now teaches nutrition classes. “We don’t get a lot of milk per cow, but we get the nutrient density in that glass of milk because there’s a higher percentage of butterfat and higher percentage of protein.”

Vanessa backs up her mother with a plug for the family’s high butterfat milk: “In California, the standard for a typical whole milk is 3.5{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} milk fat. Ours is 6{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91}. Fat received a bad rap in the early ’80s, and too many people have missed out on good fats from organic sources.”

Blake Alexandre takes his farm team on their quarterly “pasture walk,” during which they look at the health of the soil and grasses and discuss management of the two in combination with the cows. The holistic pasture management system brings an advantage beyond healthy food production as carbon is sequestered back into the ground. Above: Savanna Alexandre, the youngest of the fifth-generation siblings, grew up operating the tractors just like the rest of her family.

Dairy Runs in the Family

Stephanie and Blake Alexandre grew up on dairy farms. After graduating from Cal Poly, they married and raised their five children on their farm in Crescent City. Joseph (27), Christian (26), Vanessa (24), Dalton (22), and Savanna (19) all grew up working on the farm. All five have attended Cal Poly, and all five are choosing to continue in their family’s business. (Joseph’s and Christian’s wives Alexa and Callie also joined up.)

“We grew up right across the street from our dairy,” says Vanessa. “From our front window, we could see the milk parlor, the calves, the cows grazing out in the fields. We were always out on the tractor with dad or helping mom with the calves. It’s a lifestyle, and I think that’s part of why we are all still so involved in
the farm.”

Vanessa’s mom describes the sounds: the ocean, the farm animals, the thousands of migratory creatures that visit the farm. “We have 200 Roosevelt elk come through,” she says, but her kids clarify that the elk came through and stayed to enjoy the good organic forage the cows get to dine on. Stephanie adds, “The farm has attracted bald eagles that nest and hatch their young there every year. Salmon float through the streams . . . This is where life flourishes.”

The presence of this herd of Roosevelt elk lingering on the farm indicates the vibrancy of the ecosystems
that the Alexandres steward.

Transitioning to organic farming in the late 1990s may have been a sound business decision, but the Alexandres are true believers in the value of clean living and healthy food. “Having the farm be a viable option for the kids to return home to,” is how Vanessa describes her parents’ intention. Every choice on the farm is focused on a single mission: to create ethically raised, nutrient-dense products in the form of dairy, meat,
and eggs.

“Our family has a goal to change the food system, dairy farming, and milk in general,” says Vanessa. “We want to do that on a large scale and have a larger impact, not just in our community, but all across the West Coast.”

Christian Alexandre tends the family’s free-range chickens

Bucking the Commodity Dairy Track

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre have also steered the business through a period of dramatic change in how the milk is moved to market. This is where the new chapter in San Leandro is significant. Blake’s family dairy was a longtime member of the Humboldt Creamery, a co-op association of about 50 small family dairies in Humboldt and Del Norte counties that gained the distinctive “free-farmed” certification for the extraordinary quality of life experienced by cows living on pasture year round. Unfortunately for the members, the co-op went bust in 2009 as a result of criminal mismanagement. When the company was rescued by Foster Farms, the Alexandres were able to flow their milk into Foster Farms’ organic production, and they could have remained content with that arrangement. The decision to establish, process, and market their own brand of distinctive, nutrient-dense A2 products was a bold step in a regulation-heavy, commodity-based industry.

“Today our milk goes in multiple directions,” says Vanessa. “We sell to Foster Farms/Humboldt Creamery, Rumiano Cheese, and now our new Alexandre Family Farm brand.” 

The family sits down to dinner.

How Is the Milk Different?

Several ways:

Vanessa explains that most dairies “flash pasteurize” their raw milk, which means heating it above 161.6° Fahreinheit for around a minute or less. The Alexandres prefer an old-fashioned, small-batch, slow-churn process the industry calls “vat pasteurization” or “low and slow,” in which the milk is heated to 145° Fahreinheit for 30 minutes. The advantages are nutrient preservation and a richer, creamier taste. “Because we are keeping those enzymes alive, our milk has a shorter shelf life—about 19 days—which means it still has life in it,” Vanessa adds.

Following in the steps of Straus Family Creamery, the Alexandres do not homogenize their milk. “The cream rises to the top,” says Vanessa. “Homogenization breaks apart fat globules under high pressure, leaving the fat suspended and evenly dispersed throughout the milk. Since our family is about healthy fat, we certainly do not want to alter it.” She adds that there are no emulsifiers or stabilizers. “It’s just a really clean label with ingredients that you can read and understand.”

The Alexandres’ A2/A2 milk line includes chocolate, vanilla, caramel, and ginger turmeric flavors, but customers are encouraged to taste the regular whole milk first so they can appreciate the nutrient-dense base that makes the flavored milk so good. In addition, the dairy produces a 6{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} fat yogurt and offers eggs from the Alexandres’ pastured chickens. The products are increasingly available at larger market chains as well as independent organic grocery stores along the Pacific Northwest and Northern California coast. Pastured pork and grassfed beef are available direct from the farm.

As the Alexandre Family Farm company grows into its current vision, the hope is that the family’s healthy values will reach beyond their farm to make a large impact. “To us, the sign that we’re ‘making it’ is that we’re taking care of the people around us,” says Stephanie. “It’s about bettering our community
through nutrition.” ♦

Colleen Riordan is an Oakland-based writer whose work focuses on the innovators behind sustainable solutions to our food and agriculture challenges.

Stephanie Alexandre prepares her egg custard with ingredients from as close to home and as close to nature as possible. Photo courtesy of Alexandre Family Farm

Stephanie’s Egg Custard

After bringing home this recipe from an Eat Local Potluck, Stephanie Alexandre modified it to use her farm’s milk and chicken eggs, backyard lemons, and local honey. “When we had a group of 14 for lunch, I baked the custard in the little milk sample jars that dairy farmers used back in the days before plastic,” she says. Any ovenproof custard cups or canning jars will work just as well.

4 eggs
2 cups milk
¼ to ½ cup local honey
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon grated Meyer lemon rind
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Scald the milk in a saucepan over low to medium heat, but do not let boil. While this is heating, place a roasting pan into the oven, pour in enough water to make a water bath for your filled custard cups, keeping in mind that they will displace a lot of the water. Preheat oven to 325°.

Remove milk from heat and stir in the honey and salt. While the milk cools, beat eggs in a bowl. Then, going slowly so as not to curdle the milk, beat 1 tablespoon at a time of the warm milk mixture into the eggs until milk is incorporated.

Beat in the grated lemon rind, vanilla, and nutmeg, and pour mixture into the custard cups, dividing evenly. Place filled custard cups into the pan of water inside oven. Bake for 1 to 1¼ hours, or until custard is firm at the edges and almost firm in the center.

Remove and let cool. Serve with whipped cream and berries or other canned fruit or preserves.