by Sally Colby
When people reminisce about the way life used to be, one topic that often comes up is door-to-door milk delivery. Although most dairy processing companies stopped home delivery years ago, some dairy farmers are finding that on-farm bottling is a value-added venture worth developing.
David Stoner is one dairyman who decided to work toward adding value to his product rather than adding cows to the herd. Stoner’s great-grandfather purchased the family’s East Berlin, PA farm in 1928, and David grew up there. About four years after taking over the farm, Stoner began to pursue his dream of value-added retail so that the farm could remain the same size.
“In 2005, Don Everett and I formed Apple Valley Creamery,” said Stoner. “We were milking about 60 or 70 cows.” Stoner says the current milking herd includes 80 cows, but he’d like to add up to 20 more.
The first major project for Apple Valley Creamery was the construction of a 60-cow freestall barn. At the same time, Stoner gutted the old tie-stall barn and converted it to what is now the creamery and retail store. Stoner plans to construct a bedded pack barn that will house additional cows, dry cows and heifers.
Everett says day-to-day work on the farm is different than what he envisioned when he and Stoner first talked about creating a creamery. “I thought I’d be doing a lot more farming and that we’d be processing one day a week,” he said. “But there’s such a huge investment in starting a creamery — you can’t make that much of a capital improvement and then only operate the plant one day a week and be sustainable.” Everett says business at the farm store grew quickly in the first year, then hit a plateau. “You can only draw so many people to a store that’s out in the country. That’s when we started home delivery.”
Sales options for creamery products included having a large farm store, which would work well near populated areas; selling at farmers markets, which didn’t appeal to them; or home delivery. Although the men had considered home delivery from the start and had some idea of what the project would entail, they say the man who helped them set up the plant used the terminology, ‘extending the retail dollar.’ “Home delivery works well for this location,” said Everett. “We’re out in the country where people support farmers and agriculture, yet within a half hour drive, we can be in York, Hanover or Carlisle.”
Home-delivery is very labor-intensive, which meant Everett and Stoner had to consider trucking and truck maintenance, hiring drivers and figuring out delivery routes. Since the start-up of the creamery, every major piece of equipment in the plant has been upgraded. Apple Valley Creamery has about 500 active accounts, and makes about 300 home deliveries each week. Customers use the farm’s interactive website to order products for home delivery, and routes are determined with the help of routing software.
Stoner says when they first started to develop the creamery, many people assumed that Apple Valley was going to be a raw milk dairy. Before work was complete, people stopped in to find out if raw milk would be available. Although selling raw milk wasn’t part of their original plan, Stoner and Everett decided to obtain the necessary permits and testing so they could meet the growing demand for that product. Stoner says bacteria standards are same as for raw and pasteurized milk, and believes that maintaining a low bacteria count improves the quality of their processed products.
When the creamery first opened, raw milk had a higher price tag because of higher fixed costs to produce it, but sales volume had increased sufficiently to allow the same price for raw and pasteurized milk. Raw milk is the fastest growing sector of Apple Valley products, and accounts for about 20 percent of total sales. Raw milk has a 12-day shelf life and is available at several retail outlets including a local health food store, several farmers markets and some independent markets.
The men compare today’s home delivery to what it was about 40-50 years ago. Everett says delivery drivers must have a clean driving record and be strong enough to carry milk crates that weigh 42 pounds when they’re full. “Back then, you could find someone who made a career being a home delivery person,” he said. “They would know every stop, know what that customer would get, and they’d have a personal relationship with their customers. It’s hard to find people who want to do that now. We want them to be sociable, but the really sociable people don’t want to drive around all day in a truck by themselves and only see three customers. It’s important to develop those relationships, but it’s also important to make good time — most of our full routes have about 50 stops.”
In addition to a variety of milk products, including flavored milk, the Apple Valley farm store also stocks a selection of cheeses made on the premises by Caputo Brothers Creamery, an independent company that purchases milk from Apple Valley for cheesemaking. “They use our facilities to process it,” said Everett. “We sell milk to them, they make cheese here and we buy it back.”
Everett says he gets calls from dairy farmers throughout the northeast who are interested in starting a bottling plant and home delivery. “I tell them, figure out your market, and don’t fight what you have. See what you have, and make that work for you — not against you.”
Visit Apple Valley Creamery on line at www.applevalleycreamery.com.
by Sally Colby