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    Wednesday, October 05, 2022

    Got milk? Delivered by a milkman? In eastern Connecticut, it's a possibility.

    Dairy cows at Hyde's Dairy Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Franklin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Franklin — The milkman cometh back.

    Pandemic forces that disrupted corporate milk-processing operations and left consumers wary of fluctuations in grocery store supplies — and crowds of shoppers — have helped resurrect a market for the home delivery of milk and other dairy products in some locales, including eastern Connecticut.

    The trend is good news for a symbol of American life that had all but disappeared over the past several decades.

    Hyde’s Dairy on Lebanon Road in North Franklin began delivering some of its own milk in October, maintaining demand for the entire 3,500-pounds-a-day output of its 60-cow herd, an amount that yields about 400 gallons of milk. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Hyde’s sold all of its milk wholesale to an out-of-state cooperative. Now, it trucks about a quarter of its output to Terra Firma Farm in North Stonington, which pasteurizes, bottles and labels it. Hyde’s picks it up and distributes it.

    “Milk on every doorstep,” David Hyde, the dairy’s owner, said last week, summarizing the goal of his fledgling delivery business.

    Hyde said he delivers to a few farm stands, a grocery store or two and some 50 to 60 residential customers within about a 30-mile radius in towns like Canterbury, Franklin, Bozrah, Norwich and Griswold. The typical customer takes two gallons of milk a week, plus breads and pastries from Hyde’s bakery partner and ground beef from Hyde’s farm.

    The milk — whole, chocolate, caramel and coffee — comes in half gallons and pints, all bearing the distinctive Hyde’s Dairy label, which features an image of the backsides of Hyde cows. Hyde said his herd’s mix of Holsteins, Brown Swisses and Jerseys makes the milk taste the way it does.

    “We sold a ton of homemade eggnog around the holidays,” he said.

    Hyde, 49, remembers milkmen making deliveries when he was a kid. He doesn’t remember exactly when or why they went away, though surely it had to do with the convenience of shopping at grocery stores and the mass production of milk.

    Does the milkman deliver a better product?

    “Our milk is better for you,” Hyde said. “From cow to table in two days. It’s slow-pasteurized, not overpasteurized like the milk in stores. Look, we’re a small farm. I’m hands-on, I know what the cows are eating. I know if one of them’s not feeling good. Everything in that bottle, I’m behind it.”

    When supply-chain issues allow, Hyde plans to provide his customers with old-style porch boxes to hold deliveries. For now, he asks them to leave out a cooler.

    Here to stay?

    Schools, restaurants and hotels account for nearly a third of the milk market. When such institutions shut down due to the pandemic, processors had more milk than they could handle, creating a bottleneck. Cutbacks on production and the dumping of milk loomed.

    “You couldn’t just shut the cows off,” Hyde said. “Farms started feeding calves longer, feeding pigs with milk ...”

    Enter the home delivery market, which, it turned out, was yearning to be tapped in some places.

    Brie Casadei, owner of Terra Firma Farm, who started operating her own milk-bottling plant in 2015, supplying local grocery stores and farm stands, turned to door-to-door retail service and online accounts as soon as the pandemic hit. Prior to taking on the bottling of some of Hyde’s milk, Terra Firma already was producing as much as 120 gallons a day from its own herd of 30 Jersey cows — the herd’s total output.

    The Terra Firma bottling operation is at capacity, said Casadei, who believes the milkman is back for good.

    “Amazon and Walmart have trained people to expect things to be delivered to their door,” she said. “The more we do it, the more normal it becomes.”

    At first, Terra Firma made once-a-week deliveries to 30 customers. It now delivers to between 500 and 1,000 households a month.

    Casadei said people’s eagerness to stay out of crowded grocery stores is a big reason for the robust response. It’s also why she’s endeavoring to add more and more products from partners in an effort to provide “one-stop shopping.” Recently, she signed up for 60 cases of Girl Scout cookies.

    “We’ll deliver them,” she said.

    Supporting local businesses

    In Connecticut, 90 licensed dairy farms maintain 19,000 milking cows, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Prior to the pandemic, just two — Smyth's Trinity Farm in Enfield and The Modern Milkman in Ellington — provided home milk delivery. The Modern Milkman, launched in 2019, serves 3,000 customers in 15 towns while partnering with more than a dozen local vendors to provide fresh, local products.

    Since COVID-19 broke out in 2020, four more farms have introduced home delivery service. In addition to Hyde’s and Terra Firma Farm, they are the Farm to Table Market at Elm Farm in Woodstock and Mountain Dairy in Storrs, which delivers as far south as Colchester, Franklin and Norwich.

    At least a half-dozen other dairy farms in New London County sell their milk on site.

    “People will pay for the convenience (of home-delivered milk),” Bryan Hurlburt, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture said, noting he has milk delivered to his own porch. “They like the ambiance of it.”

    Hurlburt said another factor in the milkman’s resurgence is people's recognition of the importance of supporting small businesses, particularly those hurt worst by the pandemic, as many dairies were.

    “At the outset of the pandemic, we saw people turning back to the community,” he said. “We saw a lot of people going to farmers markets, pick-your-own operations. They were worried about the milk supply at grocery stores, too. Some of our local farms saw a market for home delivery and decided to try something new.”

    He added that consumers are confident about milk’s safety, given that no special processing is required to ensure milk is free of the coronavirus.

    “I know of no report of a cow being infected,” he said.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

    Dairy farmer David Hyde holds a half-gallon of his whole milk Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Franklin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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