South Mountain Creamery expands home milk delivery to Hagerstown

September 15, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • South Mountain Creamery is bringing back the milkman, complete with glass bottles and home delivery. J.R. Byrd, general manager with South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md., said the company has been doing home deliveries since 2001, and has now extended into Hagerstown.
Photo by Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer,

MIDDLETOWN, Md. - Cecilia McLean had never seen a milkman in the flesh until she moved to Washington County.

Now, she can't wait to see him again.

"Having my milk delivered is awesome," said McLean, a 39-year-old mother of five.

The family lives near Sharpsburg, around Dargan. Her husband, Greg McLean, commutes to Washington. Each week, they get fresh milk delivered from South Mountain Creamery.

"We had a friend who joked, 'We knew you guys moved way out there, but we didn't know you were going back in time,'" Cecilia McLean said.

That's right. The milkman is back.

Just a smidgen over the Washington County line, the Middletown, Md.-based South Mountain Creamery is the only dairy farm in the state that processes, bottles and offers home milk delivery, according to information from the Center for Milk Control, part of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The creamery dispatches a fleet of drivers to fulfill more than 6,000 deliveries in Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland, said J.R. Byrd, the dairy's general manager. Customers receive the milk in half-gallon or quart-size glass containers in metal coolers on their porches.


The home delivery service has been going strong since 2001 and continues to grow, Byrd said.

"We hope to start delivering ice cream next week," Byrd said.

Dairy farmers are innovating new ideas with hopes they can get money any way they can. In South Mountain Creamery's case, it meant bringing back the milkman. Now, its operators say they're trying to keep up with the demand.

"We've found a niche market," Byrd said.

Small and mid-size dairy farmers are having a hard time turning profits. People aren't drinking as much milk and farmers aren't getting as much money for the milk they're producing. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, competition from soft drinks, juice and bottled water siphoned off some of milk's popularity. In 1945, there were nearly 44 gallons of milk available for each person living in the United States, a figure that dropped to less than 20 gallons per person in 2008.

Karen Sowers, one of the farm's founders, remembered having to make the first milk deliveries to more than a dozen homes. She said she made the trip in her purple Ford Explorer. She said it was too late now to have doubts about whether the milkman model was a good idea.

"You're already in so deep," Sowers said. "We kind of stuck our necks out."

She and her husband, Randy Sowers, started the dairy farm from scratch in the 1980s. They started doing home deliveries in 2001 because they weren't making enough money selling milk the traditional way. Maryland dairy farmers received $14.50 per 100 pounds of milk in 2009, slightly less than $15 they received in 1999, according to USDA data.

Today, the Sowers wake up at 1 a.m. each day and are out of the house to start milking at 1:30 a.m. The cows are milked again at around 1:30 p.m.

Karen Sowers spared a few moments on a busy afternoon to speak with The Herald-Mail in her home kitchen, where between responses she monitored the pot of green beans that was to be part of a home-cooked lunch for hungry staffers. She barely rested her elbows on the red-and-white gingham tablecloth as she recounted why they decided to bring the milkman back. It was probably the closest thing to a breathing moment she had that day.

"We're just on the go at all times," she said, with her cell phone at the ready.

During that time, Sowers poured a sample-size amount of the dairy's whole milk. It's taste was creamy and rich - like milk. She said the dairy's skim milk tasted similar to commercial-grade 1-percent milk you'd get at a large grocery store.

The dairy also sells the old-fashioned "creamy top" milk - a favorite of Cecilia McLean. "I like to put the cream in my coffee," she said.

McLean said the family goes through three or four gallons of milk a week, which can get expensive.

"With five kids, we go through a lot of milk," she said.

Byrd said a half-gallon of milk costs $3.50, a price that doesn't include the $1.50 bottle deposit, which you get back if you return the glass bottle. He said the creamery's milk has a shelf life of about 15 days.

But McLean said she and her husband think it's important to eat locally grown food, even if it does mean cutting elsewhere in the family's budget.

"We just want to try to raise healthy kids," McLean said.

Byrd said part of the creamery's selling point is transparency. Byrd gave an informal tour of the dairy during milking time. He ventured through the milking parlor, to the processing room, the bottling area and into the freezer, where he slid through a narrow corridor of crates, filled with clanking glass bottles of milk processed and milked from the dairy's cows hours ago. He said the dairy plans to extend the freezer space by two-thirds, a must if they want to keep up with customer demand.

"People like to see where their milk is coming from," he said.

Byrd said its takes 24 to 48 hours between the time the cows are milked and the fresh bottle is delivered to a customer's doorstep. The dairy milks 260 to 265 Holsteins and brown Swiss cows - "the girls" as Karen Sowers calls them. Byrd said each cow consumes 125 pounds of feed - primarily grass, wheat, soy and a small amount of corn - and drinks eight gallons of water per day.

This translates to about five to six gallons of milk.

Byrd said a small portion of the dairy's milk is sent to the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association.

"The thing that helps us stay profitable is the home delivery," Byrd said.

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