Much has changed since long-time friends Sue Conley and Peggy Smith started Cowgirl Creamery in 1997: the business has grown from one small cheese-making room to two full creameries, three retail stores, and products sold in more than 700 shops and restaurants nationally. But their vision has remained the same: make great cheese and promote artisan cheese making while supporting local organic agriculture and sustainable practices.
The milk, herbs, nettles, and sweet peppers used in their cheeses all come from local certified-organic farms. “And our creamery in Point Reyes is solar powered,” Conley says. “It was an expensive investment for us, but we thought it was the right thing to do. We also figured energy costs would climb as we grew, and the investment would pay off down the line. Now it has. We’re getting 70 percent of our energy from solar.”
New Resource sees value and potential for growth
It had not occurred to Cowgirl Creamery’s owners that a bank might share their environmental commitment—until New Resource came calling. The then-new bank was looking for green-minded businesses to partner with in the agricultural space and saw both the importance of what the Cowgirls were doing and the potential for the creamery’s growth. “They had faith in our vision,” Conley says.
New Resource offered the company a $1.3 million loan to build its second creamery in Petaluma. It brought in RSF Social Finance, which supports social enterprises in food and agriculture, among other areas, as a participant lender. That was in 2007, and Cowgirl Creamery has been a New Resource client ever since. It’s a very collegial relationship, according to Conley.
“Right now we’re looking to refinance the mortgage on our barn in Point Reyes, a production facility with a retail area and offices upstairs. Traditional banks think this is crazy. They’d rather it was just retail or just offices, but New Resource sees the value of having many functions under one roof. They’re happy to look at refinancing with us.”
Continued growth inspires community collaboration
Cowgirl Creamery plans to open a dairy-processing center with the Straus Family Creamery. The facility would house the expanded operations of both businesses and serve other small dairy producers. “The whole sector is growing,” Conley says, “and if we’re going to stay small and still be competitive, we need to work together by sharing infrastructure and knowledge in engineering, food safety, and finance.”
For the finance part, Conley says, New Resource is their first choice. She points to the bank’s deep knowledge of the local community and its needs, and the way it connects clients with government and other businesses. “It’s very impressive. They’ve helped many farmers and producers here.”
Photo courtesy Melissa Edeburn.