Milk sold in glass bottles may be retro — but it is the newest niche in dairy sales. And Manitoba dairy farmers Jim and Angie Appleby aim to fill it.
Eager customers started buying 946-ml bottles of milk pasteurized and bottled right on their farm using milk from their Steinbach farm’s organically raised herd of red and white Holsteins this spring.
The Applebys call their on-farm milk-processing business Stoney Brook Creamery, a new spin on what the creamery of the past, making butter from farmers’ cream, used to do.
They’re too young to remember those days, of course.
“I guess I’m just too young to know the history on that. We call it a creamery because to us a creamery means cream,” says Jim, who left his post as a Lutheran pastor in Alberta two years ago to bring his family back to Manitoba and start farming with his brother Bill and parents, Sam and Anne Appleby.
Who wants milk in glass bottles? You’d be surprised how many, says Angie Appleby.
They’ve been frankly astounded by the interest as they’ve talked up their idea over the last months.
They’re confident there’s a buyer for every bottle, because it jives so well with intensifying interest in local and regional product, lessening product packaging waste, and people’s love of visiting the farm. A bottle purchased is returned to the farm for sterilizing and refilling. The milk is all sold farm gate.
“It’s actually kind of shocking to me as to how many people are really, really interested in what we’re doing,” she said. “I honestly think the problem will be producing enough once word gets out.”
The couple spent the past two years exploring a business model, talking up the idea with potential customers and building a separate farm building equipped with refrigeration units, and a small 170-litre bottling and pasteurizing unit.
The startup was aided by a $15,000 grant, one of seven doled out to innovating Manitoba-based farm and food companies from Growing Forward 2’s Growing Value-Commercialization program in early 2015.
Jim and Angie say they can count off multiple reasons they wanted to do this, not the least of which was finding a way to add more value to a slightly larger volume of the milk they produce organically.
For lack of markets, the bulk of their certified organic milk from their 130-head herd has always gone to the general milk pool, and only a small portion shipped to federally inspected milk processor, Notre Dame Creamery, to be processed into Organic Meadow brand products, he said.
“We feel it deserves a premium price and we wanted to find a way to sell Jim’s parents’ milk for what it’s worth,” said Angie.
Now Jim’s mornings start with donning a white lab coat.
“I’m typically here between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and as soon as milking has started, I will get some milk from the line and start pasteurizing and processing right away.”
How much they plan to produce is undetermined, says Jim, who calls the startup of Stoney Brook Creamery “a relatively low-risk market study.” They’ll only produce small volumes of bottled milk to to begin with, and leave the cheese and yogurt making until they’ve got steady milk sales and time to devote to more product development.
They’ve devoted the last while to meeting all regulatory requirements to license and operate an on-farm milk-processing business, he said.
“Now we’re at the next significant piece, which is the marketing piece.”
Milk processors in B.C. and Ontario have reintroduced glass bottled milk as a niche product line in recent years, but it’s been a long, long while since it was sold commercially in Manitoba. One study of Manitoba’s dairy industry done for the provincial Historic Resources Branch mentions Safeway in 1951 introducing plastic-coated paper cartons, a Swedish innovation, which eventually spelled the end of the glass bottle.
Brent Achtemichuk, assistant general manager for Dairy Farmers of Manitoba says DFM is excited to see the Applebys pursuing the innovative packaging and processing venture.
“We certainly encourage that,” he said. “People like to have the local products and certainly that niche is starting to grow.”