The milkman is making a come back.
In a dozen or so communities around the U.S., dairy trucks sporting happy cows and nostalgic farm scenes are showing up at doorsteps to drop off fresh milk, cream, butter and eggs.
Is that a sustainable strategy? And what does it do to promote sustainability?
Home delivery is still a minuscule portion of the milk market. But as milk consumption declines and prices sink to a four-year low, some farmers who want to stay in the business are “milking” growing consumer interest in organic and non-GMO foods, as well as the direct-to-consumer movement, to keep their businesses afloat. Increasing enthusiasm for Amazon Prime generally and subscription food services such as Blue Apron and Plated, specifically, are also stoking a “bring it to me” mindset that dairies are taking advantage of.
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To be clear, in most cases, farmers are not turning to home delivery because they’re motivated by sustainability — they just need to make more money. Farmers who market direct to consumers keep almost 100 percent of what they sell their products for, compared to the average 16 cents of every dollar they retain when their goods are sold in grocery stores.
The premium farmers earn for being local, organic, antibiotic-free and/or non-GMO adds up to more milk money, too. At a Safeway in Washington, D.C., a gallon of conventionally produced Lucerne milk sells for $4.49; Safeway’s O Organics brand Organic Milk is $6.99 (or $5.99 with the club card). One gallon of 2 percent Value Corner Milk was $3.29; the O Organics 2 percent, $8.99. Farmers who deliver that organic product directly to their customers capitalize on that same premium as they cut out the middleman.
Persuading consumers who already pay a premium for organic milk to add a $5 delivery charge to get it sometimes as soon as 36 hours after the cows are milked turns out not to be a significant obstacle, especially when they can happily get ice cream, yogurt and other fresh foods at the same time, a convenience offered by almost every dairy that delivers.
“People describe it as Christmas Day on their doorstep,” notes Abby Brusco, South Mountain Creamery’s finance chief. Run by her parents, Randy and Karen Sowers, the creamery began delivering to 13 families in Maryland in 2001; today, it has more than 9,000 customers.
“There is no substitute for a direct connection to the people growing your food,” South Mountain says on its website. “You know what you are getting. And if you have questions? You can ask the folks who have their hands in the soil.”
As Shaw told the Boston Globe, “I think in general, from Amazon Prime to the milkman, home delivery is in vogue and we’re catching as much of that curve as we can.”
Some dairies only deliver what they produce on their own farm. Others, such as Apple Valley Creamery in Pennsylvania, work more like co-ops, delivering food produced by neighboring farms that share the company’s commitment to carrying “healthy and safe products that we would be proud to feed our family.”
Meanwhile, services such as From the Farmer package up produce, dairy products and meats gleaned from a consortium of local farmers within 200 miles of their delivery area, aiming to get food “from harvest to plate” in less than 48 hours.
Says South Mountain’s CEO, Tony Brusco, “The home delivery market continues to change, just as our service has changed and evolved over the past 17-18 years. I do believe that there is a niche market here, and one we continue to develop. While large companies are fighting over online groceries … we are more focused on creating an online farmers market. We produce the dairy, beef, eggs and some of the produce. We also work with 150-200 different local growers who produce most of our produce, breads, seafood, honey, etc. It offers the convenience of online grocery shopping, but with the wholesomeness and connection back to the family farm that you get at a farmers market.
“It is not for everyone, and is very expensive to do all the different parts that we do … But it has allowed us to keep our farm, and continue to grow our farm operation, as well as our home delivery service. “
That point — that home dairy delivery service enables farms to stay in business — contributes to the sustainability side of the equation, as the practice keeps farmland out of the clutches of suburban sprawl and industrial development.
Building a business around home deliveries may also drive more dairies to convert to organic, non-GMO agriculture and take advantage of both the price premium and growing consumer demand for products that are local and healthier for people and the planet. Because much of the milk is delivered in glass bottles, home dairy delivery is also seen as a way to strike a blow against plastic pollution, a problem increasingly seen as an environmental scourge even by those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves environmentalists.
While most of the dairies doing home delivery and producing milk sustainably have been in their families for decades, if not more than a century, the opportunity to produce milk sustainably has inspired entrepreneurs to get into the business. Trickling Springs Creamery, which opened its doors in 2001, today serves customers in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. Its mission statement couldn’t be more explicit: to provide “the finest artisan dairy foods while promoting healthy happy cows, farmer sustainability, employee wellness, environmental stewardship and quality food.
“We believe that as stewards of our environment, we must make food production environmentally sustainable from the animal to the table,” its website declares.
Made possible, in no small part, by home delivery.
For another direct-to-consumer model, don’t miss this profile of BeautyCounter.