By Tim Tesconi
The venerable Petaluma Creamery, established in 1913 by a group of dairy farmers, has dutifully anchored the west side of downtown Petaluma for the last century, defining the town’s agricultural roots and serving as the economic engine for the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt.
Some towns have bell towers, classic courthouses or breweries as their identity. Petaluma has its creamery – and is proud of it. Since its founding over 105 years ago, the creamery has been a story about cows, people, rollercoaster milk markets and the trucks that move milk from farm to table.
But the Petaluma Creamery is mostly a story about the people who have helped it thrive and prosper so farmers have an outlet for their milk.
Today, the landmark creamery, owned by dairy farmer Larry Peter, remains a vital link in the survival of family dairy farmers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Many in the dairy industry say that if it wasn’t for Peter, the creamery would not be around today. And without the creamery, there would be fewer dairies in the two counties.
Peter, a crusader for Sonoma County agriculture, believed the creamery was too valuable to the dairy industry to see it sold to a developer so the stainless steel milk silos and miles of pipeline could make way for houses or a commercial development. He borrowed millions to buy the facility and has invested millions more to keep the plant going. The creamery serves as a kind of safety valve, offering an outlet for highly perishable milk by turning it into butter, cheese, powdered milk and other dairy products.
“The Creamery not only has historic significance to our community but has been an essential component of our local economy as well. It has served local dairy producers for one hundred years and played an integral role in ensuring the longevity and continuity of our family farms. Larry Peter’s passion for his agricultural roots coupled with his entrepreneurial spirit is admirable and benefits the industry and above all, our community,” said Sonoma County supervisor David Rabbitt, a Petaluma resident and former member of the Petaluma City Council.
Larry Peter, owner of Spring Hill Jersey Cheese company and Petaluma Creamery, grew up in Sebastopol, CA. His father, Virgil Peter, worked for 40 years in lumberyards. His mother, Georgia Peter, grew gourmet potatoes and sold them at local farmer's markets where she eventually became known as the "Potato Queen." Virgil and Georgia always wished they could have raised their kids on a dairy farm.
Larry worked in agriculture as a young man picking prunes and raspberries. He washed milk bottles; bottle fed calves, and drove a forklift for ten years while he learned the business. He saved his money, bought run-down houses, fixed them up, and rented them out.
In 1987 Larry bought a run-down dairy farm in Two Rock and brought it back to life. By 1998, he was producing nearly 500 pounds of Spring Hill Jersey Cheese that initially, he sold himself at farmer’s markets.
In 2004, Larry risked it all when he bought aging Petaluma landmark - the nearly 100-year-old Petaluma Creamery to grow his brands and to support local dairy production. Larry’s dedication to the industry and the area has given new life and economic growth to local families.
Petaluma Creamery today employs more than 100 people and sells up to 500,000 pounds of cheese and 300,000 pounds of milk powder a week. The Creamery also produces ice cream, whey powder, sour cream and butter under the certified organic Spring Hill Cheese and Petaluma Creamery brands, as well as third-party-branded dairy products.
Over the past 20 years, Larry has held the Peter Pumpkin Patch at the farm. Every year more than 6000 kids try the Creamery's pumpkin ice cream, dig their own potatoes, milk a cow, go for a hay ride, pet baby animals and pick out the perfect pumpkin while their parents listen to live music and enjoy free cheese tasting! It’s a wonderful opportunity to build community and to teach kids where their food comes from.
He supports local business organizations, as well as youth agricultural clubs like FFA and 4H to ensure that the strong farming traditions of his beloved Northern California are passed on to the next generation.