The label on the milk jug from Way-Har Farms says it all: “Milk (just from our cows).” That’s what you get when you purchase milk directly from a dairy practicing the “old-fashioned” jugging of their own milk. Single-source milk, bottled on-farm and sold directly to consumers, or to restaurants, food service providers and retail outlets, isn’t as common as it used to be.
But it might be making a comeback.
This isn’t raw milk. Raw milk laws vary from state to state, and sales are not legal everywhere. This milk is Grade A pasteurized milk, and juggers can sell milk from the farm, a farm store or farmers market, and even wholesale. With the right license, they can sell across state lines. What makes this milk different is that it is sourced from only the farm’s own herd, going from cow to store shelf in days, if not sooner.
Today’s milk market is dominated by co-mingled milk, from hundreds of producers and thousands of cows. Knowing exactly where your milk came from is difficult, at best. With the renewed interest in purchasing local foods, the climate may be right for juggers, also known as producer-handlers, to re-emerge.
Could single-source, farm-direct milk be the next big thing in developing local food systems? Is today’s consumer ready to swallow the concept of farm-direct milk?
Rise of big dairy
Getting milk right from the farm was the way things used to work. While the trend toward today’s dairy marketing system can be traced to the late 1800s, when middlemen began sourcing milk from farms for distribution to city residents, and the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which gave cooperatives a lot of leeways, the modern era of milk sales probably began a mere 40 years ago (http://www.rd.usda.gov/files/cir1-16.pdf).
Bulk milk processing at regional plants became widespread during the 1970s as the technology and transportation systems developed around on-farm bulk tanks and tanker trucks. According to USDA data, there were 5,283 milk processing plants operating commercially in 1960, processing 8.8 million pounds of milk. By 2011, there were a mere 332, and they produced 191.1 million pounds of milk. Co-mingled milk, regional distribution and larger processing plants have become the dairy industry standard.
Home-delivered milk, which comprised over 70 percent of sales in the early 1900s dropped to 50 percent by 1954 and captured an astonishingly small 2.4 percent of the market share by 1980. The modern era of supermarkets and convenience stores serving as primary outlets for milk sales had arrived. Milk became a retail commodity, with stores opening their own milk plants, or contracting with large processing plants for private-label milk products.
Before the onset of today’s big dairy, milking cows was often part of a diversified farm operation. Selling milk locally provided a service to the community and added another income stream to farm finances. But by the mid-1990s, over 70 percent of farms with dairy cows were specialized dairy farms. Cow numbers grew, milk output per cow increased, and milk became the farm’s crop. Farmers either stopped milking or became full-time dairymen, focusing on one thing: making more milk (http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/SB978/sb978.pdf).
It’s evolved into a complex system where surplus milk is sometimes dumped, but producers, who need to make a profit and often are paid less than the price it costs to produce their milk, spend money to get more milk per cow, purchase more cows and attempt to remain in business. Economies of scale have led to mega-dairies, milk production has shifted to regions unable to support the infrastructure, and the industry’s impact on natural resources has become an object of scrutiny. A dairy’s footprint no longer spans from the farm to the local doorsteps, but stretch nationally and internationally.
Would a return to jugging allow dairy farmers to take back their bulk tanks, putting milk dollars back into their hands, and local milk back into the glasses of consumers?
At Way-Har Farms, located in Bernville, Pennsylvania, jugging the farms’ own milk has been an important part of the operation since its establishment in the 1970s. Lolly and William Lesher and family operate the dairy and the Way-Har Farm Market. According to Lolly Lesher, Way-Har Farms is one of 12 juggers who were in operation in Pennsylvania during the 1970s and still remain in operation today. She’s seen many changes in the industry throughout those years.
Across state lines, Ken and Sue Poole, Derek Poole, and Branden and Rebekah (Poole) Brown have become juggers. Trinity Valley, a fourth-generation dairy farm, began bottling in 2013. The decision to join the family dairy was the impetus that propelled the Browns into developing the on-farm bottling plant and farm store. By bottling their own milk, the Browns are able to raise the fifth generation, toddlers Lillian and Landen, on the family dairy. The farm is the first-and-only jugger in existence in Cortland County, New York, which boasts over 100 dairy farms.
Jugging through the decades
At Way-Har Farms, milk sales are no longer the cash cow they once were. It used to be all about the milk.
The farm store, Way-Har Farm Market, began as an outlet to sell its own milk. Today, the farm processes less than 10 percent of its own milk for direct sale, a large decrease from the 60 percent bottled decades ago.
“Milk was king,” up until about 15 years ago, Lesher said. Customers came into the market with the intent of buying milk. “Fluid milk sales are not what they used to be.”
Way-Har Farms separates milk, allowing them to sell skim, 1 and 2 percent varieties, as well as whole milk, so customers who prefer those options don’t have to look elsewhere. But their retail sales of milk are not even close to keeping the market thriving. The farm store now offers ice cream, baked goods, candy, local arts and crafts, and a seating area for enjoying the treats, and milk isn’t their best seller.
Lesher believes that a lot of that is about convenience. Today’s customer will pick up milk wherever they can, be it the grocery store or the gas station. It’s a bit ironic, then, that customers who taste the milk from the farm rave about the taste.
“They do not take for granted the taste,” Lesher said, which she attributes to the milk being fresh and kept cool. The rapid cooling of the milk, which is pasteurized at a high temperature for a short period of time (HTST), means a better quality product.
It’s almost contradictory, too, that Way-Har customers are very curious about the cows and how they are raised. If knowing the cows that produce your milk is important, why wouldn’t you go out of the way to purchase direct-bottled milk?
To satisfy customers’ curiosity, Lesher and staff answer questions, including the hard ones, and do so honestly. She’s found that customers are eager to be educated, and for the most part very accepting of the actual practices on the dairy farm.
Because the farm store is not located at the dairy but on a nearby piece of commercial property, and the dairy itself is not visible from the road, Lesher has a video of the farm, available for viewing in the market. It has been a huge hit. They also host a few open house tours on the farm each year.
Today, cream and ice cream rule the day, while baked goods help to sweeten the deal. But the ice cream, while made on the premises, is not made with the milk from Way-Har cows. It would take an extra day to pasteurize and create the ice cream base from their own milk, Lesher said.
With a limited staff, and a very high demand for their own cream, it makes financial sense to purchase their ice cream base. Separating out the cream allows them to sell this valuable asset to high-end restaurants, where the demand keeps growing. Their cold-separation clarifier allows them to capitalize on the butterfat content of their mixed herd of colored breeds. The farm’s 190 cows are all pure-bred and consist of Holsteins, Jerseys, Brown Swiss and “all but Guernseys,” Lesher said.
Lesher purchases the ice cream base from a local dairy, Yoder’s, which milks their own Guernsey herd, bottles and makes their own ice cream and provides their ice cream base to other processors. So while Way-Har Farm’s ice cream customers are getting homemade ice cream made from local milk, it just isn’t Way-Har Farms’ own milk.
The ice cream base is mixed back in the processing room at Way-Har Farms Market, in a small-batch 40-quart freezer. Five gallons of ice cream base is mixed with 90 to 100 percent air, giving the ice cream a light, fluffy creaminess. They add the flavorings, allowing them to custom-make special orders, introduce seasonal favorites and keep the best-selling flavors coming. They sell in take-home cartons and offer hand-dipped cones and sundaes in the store. They also have a mobile ice cream wagon.
They’ve capitalized on the growing artisan cheese market by sending milk to a local cheese maker, to be made into cheese curds, which have proven to be popular. They haven’t changed their real sugar formula for chocolate milk since the beginning.
The farm is completing a new free stall facility, complete with bedded pack sand stalls, automatic side curtains for enhanced ventilation, and a lighting system designed to optimize the cows’ daylight time exposure. But any increased milk production, anticipated with the increased cow comfort, is not going to result in more retail milk sales.
Wholesale milk sales are still strong. But that market, too, has changed over the decades. At one time, the farm purchased shelf space at many large retail grocery chains and convenience outlets. But purchasing those slots became “very expensive,” and they no longer have their milk on those shelves, Lesher says. They sell wholesale to mom-and-pop retailers, local chain restaurants and area campgrounds. They no longer sell their milk out of state, as they’ve opted not to pay the higher fee for the interstate license.
Jugging: A new frontier
Trinity Valley has a milking herd of 100, primarily Holstein cows but mixed with Brown Swiss cows. They have grown from bottling 300 gallons of milk per week when they opened in 2013, to over 1,400 gallons per week today. While that growth sounds impressive, the milk they bottle only accounts for 35 percent of the milk produced by the herd.
“I want to use as much of our milk as possible,” Branden Brown said. “Every time you put a person in the middle, you’re taking profit off your plate.”
Increasing the amount of milk they bottle doesn’t mean growing the milking herd. The goal is to reduce the milking herd by a few dozen cows, to better balance the herd costs with the milk profits. By keeping less cows, bottling more of the farm’s milk, and capturing the profits now lost in the bulk tank, the dairy can thrive.
The new 1,500-square-foot building at Trinity Valley was built to house the farm market, bakery and bottling plant. Customers can watch the milk being processed and bottled right from the store. Here, customers can also choose from meat, maple syrup, soaps and other local farm-based products, candy and 100 percent from-scratch baked goods.
Trinity Valley doesn’t currently make ice cream, but that, not jugging, was their original plan. Making ice cream onsite, directly from their own milk, remains a future goal. They began jugging when they couldn’t find the used equipment needed for ice cream, but did find the bottling equipment.
Their milk is creamline or nonhomogenized the way it naturally comes out of the cow. In fact, “natural” is a big part of their farm story. The milk is low-temperature vat pasteurized. They hold the milk at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, then rapidly cool it. This retains more of the good bacteria, and the natural properties, than do other methods, Brown said.
The dairy does not yet offer low-fat milk, although they are set up to separate their milk. While creamline will remain the focus, they’d like to offer options to customers who are seeking low-fat milk options and heavy cream. Recently, they began making their own cheese curds.
The farm sells their fluid milk directly to customers at the on-farm store. They also sell directly to other retailers, including large grocery chains, like the three Wegmans stores that currently purchase their milk. Brown doesn’t pay for shelf space. They sell the milk to the store at an agreed-upon price, in a traditional wholesale arrangement.
Schools have expressed interest in purchasing their milk, too. Investing in smaller sized containers and developing the labeling to go with it is something they are considering as the dairy grows. They aren’t currently licensed to sell interstate, but would need to complete the paperwork and pay the fee to do so.
Another important part of Trinity Valley’s “Farm Fresh Natural Milk” is the cows’ diet. They graze during the season, and Brown is actively working to increase their time on pasture, adding about 20 acres for a more intensive grazing rotation. The cows’ diet is homegrown and all non-GMO. The dairy grows its own soybeans, hay and haylage, and corn silage, purchasing only canola and minerals. They no-till rye cover crops and cultivate the corn, which helps to eliminate pest and disease pressures and reduce chemical inputs, Brown said.
Offering product samples, hosting on-farm special events and promoting the farm requires transparency, time and patience. Educating people about the dairy industry, their own farm practices and the quality of their milk has been one of most time-consuming parts of the job, and one Brown feels has played a major role in their success.
“I have nothing to hide,” Brown said.
Can the small dairy emerge as a major player in reshaping our food system? That question is being answered now, as juggers, whether new at the game or an old pro, foster connections with today’s consumers, who have been showing an increased inclination to know more about food production.
“It’s worth it. It’s a whole different way of thinking,” Brown said of processing and bottling their milk for direct sales.
But every dairy farmer has to find the model that fits their farm. Not every farm needs to jug, and every jugging operation is unique.
“Every operation reflects its owner,” Lesher said. “Focus on what you do well.”
Some might argue that the consumer’s nostalgia for direct from the farm milk stops at the glass bottle. But many others will advocate that consumers today really do want milk from a single herd, from a local farm, minimally processed, no ultra-pasteurization here, and with transparency from udder to jug. On-farm fluid milk bottling is a key ingredient to re-establishing a direct connection from farm to table. Just how pivotal it will be in making the local food system recipe successful remains to be seen.
Read more: Bringing Dairy Profits Home