Dairies carve out niche with glass-bottled milk

Issue Date: February 14, 2018
By Ching Lee
Cotton candy-flavored milk is placed in glass containers at Nutcher Milk Co.’s bottling facility, located on the dairy that produces the milk.
Photo/Ching Lee
Stanislaus County dairy farmer Rick Nutcher stands next to a variety of his flavored milks.
Photo/Ching Lee
Debbie Nutcher places Nutcher Milk Co. reusable glass bottles into a box after they’ve been washed and sterilized. Customers pay a $2 deposit on the bottles when they buy Nutcher milk.
Photo/Ching Lee

With a sea of beverage options jockeying for space in the grocery aisle, some California dairy farmers are using a bit of nostalgia to distinguish their product in the crowd—and encourage people to drink more milk.

Several San Joaquin Valley dairy farmers in recent years have started bottling their own milk in glass containers, harkening back to a time when the familiar staple came delivered along with the morning paper.

Nutcher Milk Co. in Stanislaus County is probably the newest milk bottler in the state to offer glass. Opened in 2015, the company grew out of dairy farmer Rick Nutcher's desire to diversify his business while still staying in the same agricultural sector.

"The glass was kind of a niche thing to be able to get on the shelf," he said. "If I went to the store and my bottle looked just like everybody else's, it'd be tough to compete with any of the large creameries."

He first considered the idea in 2012 while traveling through different parts of the country, visiting dairies in states such as Pennsylvania and Missouri that were already bottling their own milk in glass.

"It was a big risk because there wasn't anybody doing it here," he said.

He did not know it at the time, but two other San Joaquin Valley dairy farmers also had the same idea and would open glass milk-bottling businesses in the fall of 2012: Top O' the Morn Farms and Rosa Brothers Milk Co., both in Tulare County.

In addition to using glass bottles, all three businesses also make different flavored milks. Top O' the Morn also makes butter and does home deliveries, while Rosa Brothers also makes ice cream and is the only one with its bottling operation off-site from the dairy, located in Kings County.

Frustrated with "not having any control over price or where our milk goes," Ron Locke, who runs Top O' the Morn with his wife, Evie, said he decided to bottle his own milk because that was what the dairy used to do in the late 1950s and early 1960s when his father-in-law ran the dairy.

He said he had considered diversifying the way other California dairy farmers have done, including planting orchards, vineyards and other crops, as well as making cheese. But he chose bottling because "there wasn't a whole lot of competition out there and it looked like there was an opportunity." He, too, was unaware at the time that Rosa Brothers and Nutcher were on similar paths.

Though glass packaging has diminished in volume, "it has never gone away," said Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute of California, noting that the state "always had at least a couple of small processors who bottled in glass." For example, organic dairy farmer Albert Straus, who operates in Marin and Sonoma counties, has been bottling in glass since 1994. Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy in Los Angeles County, which has been in operation since 1920, never stopped using glass bottles, although it hasn't milked any cows since 1965.

Kaldor said processors moved away from glass and started using paper cartons in the '50s and '60s and then plastic jugs in the late '70s and early '80s, because those materials are not as heavy and are safer because they don't shatter if dropped. Convenience and cost also were factors, she added.

"Returning the bottles, rewashing them and so forth was pretty cumbersome," she said. "Glass also made the product more expensive because there's a deposit on those bottles."

That glass bottles are reusable makes them "sustainable and very green," Locke said. Nutcher noted that glass also does not alter the taste of milk the way he thinks plastic containers do.

With fluid milk consumption in the nation continuing to decline, Nutcher said producing milk that tastes good is important to him. Because he bottles only his own milk, he said he can control what he feeds his cows, which can affect how the end product tastes. Also, with his bottling facility right next to his dairy, he's able to bottle his milk within an hour and a half of it leaving the dairy, assuring freshness.

By offering different "fun" flavors such as cotton candy, orange cream and root beer, as well as more-traditional flavors such as chocolate and strawberry—all of which are made from whole milk—Nutcher said it's helping him move more milk, and getting more people drinking it.

Even so, Nutcher noted he bottles just a small portion of what his dairy produces; about 80 percent of his milk still goes to Hilmar Cheese. Locke bottles about 8 to 10 percent of his milk, with the rest going to Dairy Farmers of America.

"It takes a lot of customers and a lot of stores to move milk," Nutcher said. "There's only so many stores out there and only so much shelf space that's available for this product."

Locke currently serves about 300 grocery stores, mostly in Southern California and the Bay Area, and said he probably needs another 300 more stores for his bottling business to become profitable. He noted the "tremendous overhead" involved, with refrigerated trucks, labor and other expensive equipment. His long-term goal, he said, is to scale back his 2,000-cow dairy and grow his bottling business so that he's bottling most of his milk.

"If we were to do it again, we would've done it in Ontario, down south, because of the sheer population there," he said. "You need to be close to population. It's no different if you're farmstead or if you're a big fluid-milk producer."

As an organic producer, Straus said his decision to use glass bottles was about more than trying to create a niche. Reusable glass bottles, he said, fit well with his farming system, which aims to conserve natural resources, be sustainable and not contribute to the waste stream.

"It's a bigger vision than just looking at selling bottled milk," he said. "Our mission is to sustain family farms in Marin and Sonoma counties, and help revitalize rural communities through education and advocacy. It's our brand; it's why people are so dedicated to us."

Today, Straus Family Creamery not only bottles milk but makes butter, yogurt, ice cream and sour cream. Its products are sold all over the West Coast, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, with California accounting for 65 percent of its sales.

Straus said he's not concerned about the increased competition in the milk-bottling business, noting that there are different ways and venues to market fluid milk besides retail stores. Increased competition, he added, may "create more innovation in how these products are being marketed."

"If consumers are looking at supporting family farms and farmers can find a way to differentiate themselves, I think it's all good," he said. "More people in the market with their own brand and doing small-scale production is a plus and a direction that we want to go."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.