Milk deliveries back in fashion

The Baltimore Sun

The milkman is back in Baltimore.

Some Mount Washington residents are getting dairy products delivered to their front door from a small Frederick County farm. Customers say the convenience and quality as well as the comfort of knowing where the products come from makes it worth the added cost.

South Mountain Creamery began the service in Baltimore late last month, and is the only dairy believed to be delivering milk to customers' doors in Maryland, according to agriculture officials and industry experts. The farm joins a small number of others around the country that have rekindled a promising niche market.

Customers are paying a premium for the convenience in part because of higher gasoline and milk prices.

The weekly delivery costs $3.50. And a half-gallon of the farm's milk costs $3.09 - about 70 cents more than at a local grocery store.

The delivery, which can include other products from mostly local farms such as yogurt, juice and goat cheese, is left in a small cooler on a customer's porch.

"Outside of the nostalgia of getting the milk out of the cooler, it really is a great service to have," said Marie Fortuno-Schifflett, a Mount Washington resident and mother of two teenagers. "It really does taste better, and the fact that it's not laden with byproducts like hormones makes me feel a little bit better."

Family-owned South Mountain Creamery started delivering milk in 2001 from the back of a Ford Explorer in an effort to gain control of its prices. Now the dairy farm of 200 milking cows has grown from delivering to 13 homes to about 2,600 residences in the Washington-Baltimore region.

"I never intended to go as far as we have," said Tony Brusco, who runs the creamery portion of the farm's business.

Although the farm isn't certified as organic because of the cost involved, it does not give its cows growth hormones. The animals graze on pastures devoid of pesticides and eat hay grown on the farm. The milk is delivered in reusable glass bottles.

Brusco said Baltimore customers expressed interest in South Mountain Creamery's products for a few years but he never had enough business to make the 60-mile drive worth it. His general rule is that there needs to be one customer per mile.

Recruited customers

Mike Siegel, a Mount Washington resident and law student, wanted the delivery service to come to his neighborhood for environmental reasons as well as for the convenience. So, through a Mount Washington e-mail discussion group, he recruited about 80 customers.

"I'd rather pay the guy that produced it rather than the retailer who pays the distributor who then pays the producer," said Siegel who is a fan of the farm's non-homogenized cream-topped milk.

Although South Mountain began delivering to Mount Washington three weeks ago, the farm's products have been available in a few neighborhoods since July. That's when P.J. Keating, owner of his own delivery service called Hey, Milkman!, began purchasing the products at wholesale and reselling to about 20 residents in Federal Hill, Canton, Mount Vernon and other Baltimore neighborhoods.

Milk delivery, which was common during the first half of the 20th century, began to fade away with advanced refrigeration and 24-hour convenience stores.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 29.7 percent of consumers had milk delivered in 1963. But since the 1990s, customers who take home milk delivery has hovered about 0.4 percent.

Bob Renaut, president of Oberweis Dairy in Illinois, says his company has grown to a $65 million business by focusing on quality and home delivery. The dairy, which started in 1915, never stopped delivering milk.

"We were on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-1980s," Renaut said. "But we started focusing exclusively on home delivery and through that focus we went from 1,000 to 3,500, to 40,000 customers and we are still growing today."

Oberweis pays local farms a premium for producing milk and then bottles and delivers it to consumers' doorsteps.

South Mountain's delivery service is growing rapidly and the dairy is plowing most of its profits back into the farm. According to Brusco, the end goal is not to be a large business, but to be able to sell all the milk the farm produces directly to consumers. The farm was founded in the 1980s.

From 3,066 to 750

According to the USDA, the number of dairy farms in Maryland has steadily declined since the 1970s. Census data shows that in 1974, Maryland had 3,066 dairy farms. A state and federal study found there were 750 dairies in Maryland in 2007.

Dairies typically sell milk to distributors for a price set by the federal government. Some farmers say this puts smaller dairies - already dealing with rising production costs - at a disadvantage to larger competitors. So some farms choose to sell milk directly to consumers so they can set their own prices.

According to S. Patrick McMillan, Maryland assistant agricultural secretary, other farms sell products such as ice cream and cheese but are wary of the production costs associated with processing milk.

A bill to allow farmers to sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk directly to customers has failed to gain support in the General Assembly over the past two years.

The Kilby farm in Cecil County recently bought bottling equipment and hopes to start delivering milk during the next two years.

"We are located in Cecil County, one of the fastest-growing counties, which is a mixed blessing if you are a farmer," said Phyllis Kilby. "We think we've got the population to support it."

Experts say direct-to-consumer selling could be a viable option for farms near a customer base willing to support home delivery and for those that cannot grow much larger.

"If [a farm] does not have the option of getting bigger, this is a possibility," McMillan said. "I admire them for what they've done. Our best opportunity to keep farming in the state is to keep the farmers we have."

Dale Johnson, a farm management specialist at the University of Maryland, said he is surprised by South Mountain's success and he believes it must be part of people's desire to eat locally.

"I thought home delivery was a thing of the past, but a lot of people want these services and they have a good product there," Johnson said. "People are saying, 'I really want to buy from local farmers.' "

Idea of small farm

Johnson pointed out that milk is a commodity and is often shipped from surrounding states instead of local farms.

Though South Mountain Creamery has signed up about 1,000 customers over the past six months, Brusco said he hopes to stay true to the idea of a small local farm.

"I don't want to turn us into a mega-business, I think that takes away from why people buy from us," Brusco said. "I think we are getting to a point where we are going to do slower growth."

megan.hartley@baltsun.com

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