How It’s Made: Clover Sonoma, A Pioneer of Clean, Sustainable, Organic Milk

clover sonoma
Image care of Clover Sonoma

Companies trying to grow sustainably and ethically could take a page out of the books of Clover Sonoma. From humble beginnings, this milk brand has grown to become one of the biggest names in dairy on the West Coast, never compromising on its values of producing clean, high-quality milk.

Clover Sonoma got its start 101 years ago, when Petaluma Cooperative Creamery began making and distributing Clover Brand products locally. As the co-op grew, so did the brand: the first Clover milk bottles were sold in 1929, and a few years later, a Clover-brand cottage cheese was added to the mix.

It is with this co-op background in mind that the Benedetti family established Clover Stornetta Farms Inc. in 1977; former General Manager of the cooperative Gene Benedetti purchased the brand name and brought many of the former members on board to form the new company.

Today, Marcus Benedetti, the founder’s grandson, is at the helm of the operation, where he still works closely with local farmers whose families have been supplying milk to Clover for generations.

“The roots run very deep here in northern California,” says Marcus Benedetti.

clover sonoma
Image care of Clover Sonoma

A Sustainable Dairy Pioneer

Before organic was really on anyone’s radar, Clover made an important decision that would change the way that milk was sold forever.

In 1994, Monsanto began touting a newly developed wonder drug, rBST. This synthetic hormone was designed to artificially stimulate milk production in dairy cows by about 20 percent, promising boosted yields and dramatic increases in revenue for milk producers.

“The entire industry had suddenly adopted that reality: this was going to be out there; it was gonna be part of the food system,” says Benedetti. “And my dad said, ‘Whoa, how is this going to affect probably the most educated consumers anywhere in the world?'”

Then-president and CEO Dan Benedetti was, of course, referring to consumers in the Bay Area, who had always been pioneers in clean eating and transparency in the food system.

“Monsanto got wind of that,” continues Marcus Benedetti, “So they flew out and tried to convince him to essentially sweep it under the rug. He basically said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to guarantee an rBST-free milk supply, but I’m gonna do it. Sorry.'”

Dan Benedetti called upon individual local dairies, promising to pay them more to produce milk devoid of what was rapidly becoming an omnipresent hormone. Sixteen of them answered the call.

This was a risk, both for Clover and for these farmers. At the time, consumers were disconnected from their food supply; no one was talking about its problems, much less how to improve upon it. Facing consumers whose only expectation was a competitive price, Clover took a different tack.

“We really wanted to connect the urban consumer, in our case, the greater San Francisco Bay Area folks, back to where their food comes from,” says Marcus Benedetti.

From that point on, it seemed, sustainable, clean milk would always be the Clover way.

“They were really one of the cutting-edge companies saying, ‘No, we’re not going to accept rBST from our partners,’” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group. “They were non-GMO before there were any GMO crops; they were non-GMO before there was any Non-GMO Project. They were non-GMO before there was even a USDA organic label.”

But the organic label did come, and with it came the expectation for Clover to rise to the occasion, which the company did, happily: in 1999, Clover became USDA certified organic, and in 2000, it became the first dairy in the U.S. to be certified by the American Humane Association.

“The Humane Association had gotten wind of this little dairy in northern California taking a stand on rBST,” says Benedetti, who notes that while the Association already had criteria for humanely raising swine and chickens, they had yet to establish regulations for cattle.

“So they engaged us, and their scientific community flew out from D.C.,” recalls Benedetti, “And over the course of several months and a lot of conversations at dining room tables and kitchens with our dairy families, collectively, they developed the standards for animal welfare.”

In 2016, Clover took its commitment to sustainable, ethical dairy one step further and applied to become B-Corp certified. The company achieved the certification with a whopping 97 point score (80 is required to pass; 55 is the median).

“We thought it would be interesting to kind of give us a baseline of where we’re at, with the hope of kind of improving upon that every year,” explains Benedetti of the certification. “We felt good that we were there, but more importantly, it gives us something to talk about with our people. Here’s where we landed – good for us – but how do we move forward?”

These steps have included producing the nation’s first conventional non-GMO milk and a recent commitment to transition all of its conventional milk supply away from GMO feeds by the end of 2018.

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The Clover Sonoma Name Today

In 2017, Clover Stornetta Farms changed its name to Clover Sonoma, a nod to the region that had long been its home.

“For more than 100 years, our brand has worked closely with family dairy farmers inSonoma and Marin Counties to produce the best milk on the market, and now our Clover Sonoma name expresses this heritage while looking to the future,” says Benedetti.

Clover took its rebranding as an opportunity to announce its intention to remain an independent and family-owned company, something that was especially important to the company as large corporations continue to acquire small brands in the natural and organic food space.

For Clover, this commitment means continuing to work in closed-loop system, with all of its dairy-producing heifers being raised on one of the 28 small family farms that supply milk to Clover, thus ensuring biosecurity within the company’s milk supply. And of course, there’s a long history of trust between Clover Sonoma and these individual farmers.

“They all either inherited the footprint – the ranch – from their parents or their grandparents or their great grandparents,” explains Benedetti, something that he and they have in common.

“Our values were instilled in us by our grandfather,” says Benedetti, who notes that with that much history, “We get the benefit of developing a lot of goodwill over the years from our employees and our community and our customers.”

Today, Clover Sonoma produces a wide range of dairy products, including fluid milk, yogurt, kefir, butter, and ice cream. No matter what product it is, consumers can be sure that it is true to Clover’s standards of sustainability.

Undeterred by Fire

Clover’s history has twice been marred by fire. It was a 1975 blaze, the largest in the history of the town of Petaluma, that destroyed the original Petaluma Cooperative Creamery, creating the ashes from which Clover would rise in its current incarnation under the careful direction of Gene Benedetti.

This past month, fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties in Northern California have once again devastated farms and vineyards in the region, but while historic Stornetta buildings were destroyed in the blaze, Clover Sonoma’s dairy, animals, and processing plant were not impacted by the fire.

“Although we’re extremely sad to see this bit of history lost, we’re happy to report this isn’t our current processing plant where we make our products,” explains the company. “The empty historic Stornetta building that was lost in the fire was a landmark of sorts, one the community admired as part of our local history, and belonged to a Clover neighbor who has tragically lost part of their land.”

There is no doubt that Clover will face this difficulty with the same spirit that has defined its past: one of doing what is best, not only by the farmer and the animal, but by the consumer and what he or she has come to expect from the Clover brand.

“Clover believes that being a sustainable business is the only way to do business,” explains the company. “We recognize that doing so is not only a tradition, it is an obligation.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco