A Home Run for Local Milk: Delivered Right to Your Door
by Genevieve Rajewski • Photography by Michael Piazza
It’s before 8 on a Friday morning when M. Joseph Manning backs his blue Thatcher Farm milk truck into the driveway of a Milton Cape. But it’s not as early as his usual 7:20am arrival, and Liz DiPesa, owner of the home and daycare within, has already called the farm’s office out of concern.
“I was scared that he was dead on the side of the road. Joe is that punctual,” says DiPesa with a laugh, after Manning explains that he was just delayed by waiting to meet up with this Edible Boston correspondent. Manning apologizes again to DiPesa—who happily waves off the apology—fills a milk crate with empty glass bottles and then jogs outside to the truck, where this week’s order awaits. DiPesa has known Manning, or “Joe the Milkman” as the kids she watches call him, for 40 years. He delivered milk to her family when she was just a kid and has been serving her in-home daycare since she opened it 26 years ago.
“Joe saves me time and money. I don’t have to shop, because he carries good-quality stuff,” she says.
When Manning returns inside with a crate full of milk bottles, DiPesa makes some last-minute additions. “Two lemonades, one butter, one pack of bagels, two fruit punch…” she reads from her list. “I’ll stop by on my way home from Quincy with it,” replies Manning. “I’ll let myself in, give the dog a biscuit and put the stuff in the fridge.”
“Joe probably has the keys to everyone’s house in Milton,” jokes DiPesa. “People depend on him.”
Manning heads off to the rest of his Milton route, then on to Quincy. Although the service may seem like an impossibly rural throwback, Thatcher Farm has five trucks that deliver to 1,400 homes in and around Boston, including Brookline, South Boston, the South End, Jamaica Plain, Newton and surrounding communities.
Manning personally heads out at 5:30am five days a week, finishing around 2pm.
“That’s been my life for over 50 years now,” says Manning, whose grandfather started the farm in 1891 and who now manages the business along with several family members, including his two sons. “I’ve worked the combine, shoveled the cow barns out, run the dairy. There’s not one aspect of the business I haven’t done, but my favorite part is what I’m doing now: door-to-door home delivery. You get to know people really well, which is the best part of the business.”
A Quality Product
At $2.99 a half-gallon and with a four-item delivery minimum, “we get a little more money for home delivery and the glass bottle, but we feel it’s the best product available,” says Manning. Thatcher Farm’s milk is vat-pasteurized, which is sure to please dairy aficionados. The extremely low-temperature, slow pasteurization process retains the milk’s creamy texture and natural flavor—unlike the ubiquitous contemporary ultra-pasteurization process, which aims to kill bacteria as quickly as possible through very high heat. “If you look at some of the [ultra-pasteurization] products, some of them have a six- or seven-week shelf life now. I don’t want a six- or seven-week-old glass of milk,” says Manning.
By comparison, Thatcher Farm products carry a 14-day expiration date and are in customers’ hands typically within two days of the cow being milked.
As with most area home-delivery services, available products include whole, light and skim milk; cream and half-and-half; and flavored offerings such as chocolate and strawberry milk and eggnog come the holiday season. The Rhode Island favorite, coffee milk, may soon also be available.
The State of the Local Dairy Industry
Aside from online ordering, Thatcher Farm may seem to have changed little since the Manning family first started delivering milk in 1891.
However, an innovative partnership helped Thatcher Farm weather the economic pressures that have hurt the local dairy industry for decades.
From the 1920s until 1963, Thatcher Farm had 250 cows and managed the milking, processing and delivery all from its Thatcher Street location in Milton. Fields on private estates were used for growing corn and hay used for feed.
“But by the ’60s, the town was changing. Milton had been pretty rural in the ’40s and ’50s, but it was becoming a bedroom community of Boston. Land was getting harder to find, and the barns were in need of a lot of work. We used to farm a lot of space that is now subdivisions,” says Manning, who delivers to homes built on land where he once baled hay. “We decided to discontinue the farming part and kept the dairy open for another six or seven years, getting the milk from a farm in Vermont. Then we closed the dairy in ’67 or ’68.” Today, Thatcher Farm is a farm in name only. It relies on Hatchland Farm in North Haverhill, New Hampshire, to supply all its milk. “They have 400 cows on the New Hampshire/Vermont border near the Connecticut River,” saysManning. “The farm is run by two brothers:
One runs the farm and the other runs the dairy. In my opinion, there is no better milk. It goes right from the cows into a holding tank, then straight into the dairy where it gets processed. The milk is down here the next day.”
The approach is a familiar one for many of the milk-delivery services In Massachusetts. Two of the area’s largest home-delivery services receive their milk from elsewhere. Hornstra Dairy Farm in Hingham, which delivers milk in communities south of Boston, also gets its milk from Hatchland Farm in New Hampshire. Crescent Ridge Dairy in
Sharon, which delivers milk to 70 communities around the 495 belt, gets its milk from the Howrigan Family Farm in Vermont. Even A. B.Munroe Dairy, the Northeast’s largest milk-delivery company, imports milk from Connecticut to serve its customers in Rhode Island.
“If you look at the leaders in milk delivery—Hornstra, Crescent Ridge and A. B. Munroe—you’ll realize they all succeeded by becoming exceptional at distribution. All do an excellent job, and I look to all three for leadership. Maybe if they had to run a farm, they’d lose some of that focus, but fortunately they haven’t,” says Warren Shaw, whose great-grandfather and grandfather started delivering milk from Dracut’s Shaw Farm in 1908.
Shaw Farm still maintains a milking herd of 80 Holsteins—16 of which are certified organic-mill cows—and delivers milk to about 200 homes in Dracut, Chelmsford, Lowell, Tyngsborough, Westford and the west side of Methuen.
It hasn’t always been easy. According to Shaw family history, the milk delivery became a very competitive business in the 1930s. HP Hood Company salesmen began to track milkmen from independent dairies and poach their customers by luring them away with a signing bonus of a month’s worth of free milk. “Luckily, they never bothered our customers because of a personal friendship between my grandfather and the Hood rep,” says Shaw.
Of course, Massachusetts’s farms have faced more-recent challenges to keeping a home-delivery business line. Founded in 1931, Pearson’s Elmhurst Dairy in West Millbury manages a herd of 100 Holsteins and milking short-horn cows, but has had to stop delivering into the city of Worcester and concentrate its efforts on smaller towns such as Millbury, Grafton and Sutton.
“Convenience stores changed whole picture for home delivery 25 years ago,” says Bob Pearson. “People wanted to pick up cheaper milk and carry it home rather than pay someone to put it on their doorstop.”
The impact of low milk prices continues to hurt dairy farmers. “The last couple of years have been very difficult for the dairy industry,” says Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. “For every gallon dairy farmers produce, they are losing 10 to 20 cents. Multiply that out and it becomes a pretty significant debt that our dairy farmers are running.” So What Constitutes Local?
Keep Local Farms reports that dairy farmers’ share of the retail dollar has declined from about 50% in the 1950s to about 30% today. “In Massachusetts, as is true in any New England state, it’s so expensive to farm that the closer milk producers can get to the consumer, the more opportunity they have to see as much as possible of that retail dollar,” says Soares. “Home delivery is a great way for our producers to get close to the consumer.”
For those wondering if buying home-delivered milk trucked down from New Hampshire or Vermont constitutes “buying local,” consider the state’s eye-opening perspective: “More and more we recognize Massachusetts as part of the New England foodshed,” says Soares, “and the same is true for our dairy operations being part of a the New England milkshed.”
This is necessary, given the geographic distribution of the region’s population and the size of the corresponding dairy herds. In Massachusetts, where rural land is especially scarce, dairy herds average only 70 cows or so. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut have herds of comparable size, and Maine’s dairy herds are slightly larger: about 100 cows on average.
“Even in Vermont, which is by far the biggest New England state in terms of dairy production, the farms are very small when compared with those in the Midwest and West,” says Soares. “Vermont has an average herd size of 200 to 300 cows. In parts of the western U.S., herd sizes climb well into the thousands for an individual farm, and I’ve heard of some farms with 30,000 head out in the Midwest.” “In Massachusetts, we have many more dairy consumers than we have capacity to feed,” says Soares. “So we encourage people to look for local Massachusetts producers. But we want people to know that regional production is equally important.”
A Traditional Service…Reborn?
Although home-delivered dairy has undoubtedly faced enormous challenges, it may be making a comeback.
“Consumers really get a chance to know their farmer and where their food comes from,” says Soares. “They know they can trust that product in a time when there’s a growing concern over food safety and security. Buying milk that has traveled really long distances also has other implications, and these days more and more people are worried about their carbon footprint and what a purchase means for the local economy.”
Thatcher Farm’s five-truck operation seems to be growing stronger, and the business may add another delivery truck next year. “People want good stuff, and they want it in glass bottles. A lot of dairies gave up on glass years ago. But people tell me straight out if we don’t have the glass, they don’t want the milk,” says Manning of the rising demand for recyclable packaging.
Thatcher Farm also has boosted its profitability, as many delivery operations have, by offering other products beyond milk.
“We have more products in truck now—freezers full of stuff we never had when we started [from ice cream to Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins baked by Montillio’s Bakery in Quincy to freshly squeezed juices],” says Manning. “Some people now order 10 to 15 items a week, making a $10 stop a $25 stop. If we can do that 20 to 30 times a day, it really increases sales. You aren’t driving the truck any further than you were before to make the route profitable. It keeps us in business. But, of course, the stuff has to be good.”
While home delivery makes up only 5% of Shaw Farm’s business—the farm has an on-site store and wholesales to Whole Foods, Wilson Farm and others—Shaw says he is looking at expanding the service come fall.
“We look at home delivery as one of the keys to our future,” says Shaw. “So we’ll try and build it some more and start delivering everything for sale in our farm store, from freshly baked goods to local produce. It is such a unique service and a real opportunity to connect with the growing number of customers interested in buying local.”
Where to Find Home-Delivered Milk
Crescent Ridge Dairy
Hornstra Farm Dairy
Maple Farm Dairy
Pearson’s Elmhurst Dairy
Shaw’s Farm Dairy
Genevieve Rajewski is wishing milk delivery would come to the Wakefield/ Melrose area and dying to try Thatcher Farm coffee milk. A frequent Edible Boston contributor, Genevieve has written for Smithsonian, wired.com,Washington PostMagazine and the Boston Globe. Read her articles at www.genevieverajewski.com and follow her local “meat club” adventures at www.wickedtastyharvest.com.