Customers like knowing exactly where their milk comes from

The iceman's days became numbered with the advent of the refrigerator at the dawn of the last century. The coal man stopped delivering once people switched to oil and natural gas to heat their homes. And the milkman, for the most part, went the way of the buggy whip when big grocery stores came into vogue in the 1940s and '50s.

But last week, the milkman returned to Alexandria, Va. And this time, in addition to the milk, he brought cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and beef, and other all-natural products. All organic.

On Sept. 24, an immaculate white truck with big black splotches on it left South Mountain Creamery in Frederick County, Md., and began making the rounds, announcing the milkman's arrival with the clink of old-fashioned glass milk bottles being deposited on doorsteps.

For some, it was a nostalgic return.

Larry Altenberg, president of the Del Ray Citizens Association, was reminded of the milkman who delivered fresh milk to his grandparents' New York farm, carefully placing it in an old insulated metal box.

"They got milk delivery every week up until I was 10 years old," recalled Altenberg, whose community is "very big on organic foods and local, sustainable farming." "This is sort of a throwback to have that fresh-from-the-farm delivery to your house."

Altenberg heard about South Mountain's delivery service through an e-mail discussion group. He signed up and placed his order online. When he opened the cooler that he had left on his porch &

he doesn't have a metal box yet &

it was brimming with a half-gallon bottle of whole milk, a half-gallon of — percent milk, yogurt, butter, cheese, goat cheese and pre-made meals of stuffed pork and chicken and mushrooms that a local chef whips up using meat and produce from the South Mountain farm.

"Both my wife and I work," he said. "So for those nights when we're both too tired to cook, those things will come in handy. And having literally fresh-from-the-farm meals, you really can't beat that."

Abby Brusco, who grew up on the family-owned South Mountain farm and runs its billing operation, said that when she and her mother began delivering milk to 12 homes out of the back of their Ford Explorer in 2001, they never imagined they'd one day be sending milk trucks as far north as the Pennsylvania border and as far south as Alexandria. Their first delivery order came from a town 20 minutes away, and they worried that that was too far. Now, nine milkmen deliver fresh milk to as many as 2,000 homes on 32 routes. They don't advertise; all their business comes via word of mouth.

Why so much interest?

"I think most of us just want the best we can buy for our families. And in this day, the fewest number of hands that touch the products, the more natural and better they are for you," customer Katharyn Cantor said.

Carol Wagner said she liked the idea of knowing exactly where her milk comes from.

"Besides the convenience of home delivery, I am interested to know where the milk comes from and how the cows were raised," she said. "I learned recently that hormones in milk are part of the reason that young women have larger breasts than has been historically the case."

The Bruscos said their farm is organic in everything but certification, which they say is too cumbersome a process for a small family operation that does everything from growing the hay to milking the cows to bottling the milk. The milk is pasteurized, a heating process that kills germs. Customers choose whether they want it homogenized, which smooths out the fat globules in milk, the Bruscos said. Without it, the cream settles on top.

Long ago, seeing the milkman leaving milk on the porch was as common as the paper boy hurling the morning paper from his bicycle. But with the rise of technology that enabled milk to be mass-produced safely and huge grocery stores that made one-stop shopping cheap and easy, the milkman started to disappear.

Some home-delivery dairies stayed afloat. One Chicago area dairy, Oberweis, still has 30,000 home-delivery customers. But most have died out.

In recent years, agricultural economists have noticed a slight uptick in small, organic farms delivering fresh milk. But, they say, those make up less than — percent of the milk market. The farms can't touch the mass-produced milk juggernaut. Americans consumed nearly 7 billion gallons of milk last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Small farms can't keep up with that kind of demand.

"I know people have that nostalgic feel; they want to know there is a farm where their food comes from," said Kenneth Bailey, associate professor of agricultural economics at Pennsylvania State University. "But the reality is, it's going to be hard to find a farm with cows that still processes the milk. There are economies of scale. And everyone specializes in one market segment. The reality is, to milk, process and then ship &

it's hard to do all that stuff. Consumers want to know which farm their food came from, but they also want cheap prices."

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