- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bottled milk delivered to your doorstep? It’s not a scene from the good old days, it’s a contemporary one that plays out in a growing number of neighborhoods in the area, courtesy of a local dairy farm — South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md.

“It feels good to buy local and fresh, and I love the reusable glass bottles,” says Robert Weinstein, a Capitol Hill resident who gets weekly milk deliveries.

Mr. Weinstein’s household is one of at least 4,500 local households — up from 13 in 2001 — that receive milk and other products from South Mountain Creamery (www.southmountaincreamery.com).

But how can it be — particularly in this economy — that pricey dairy ($3.25 per half-gallon of milk, plus a $3.75 delivery charge) does so well?

Karen Sowers, who started the farm in the 1980s with her husband, Randy, says it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time: providing a green, local, fresh product at a time when more and more people wanted just that.

“People started to pay attention to where their food was coming from,” says Mrs. Sowers, who, at age 55 — along with her 54-year-old husband — typically milks the farm’s 220 cows at 1:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., their average workday totaling roughly 18 hours.

The cows produce about 30,000 gallons of milk each week; the most popular varieties are skim and chocolate.

“People wanted to buy local and fresh, and we just happened to fall into that,” Mrs. Sowers adds. “We went green before it was a buzzword.”

The farm’s success doesn’t surprise milk expert Anne Mendelson, author of “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.”

“We’ve been seeing this trend for a while,” Ms. Mendelson says, adding that reusable packaging is probably as important as food sourcing when people decide to go local and bottled.

Though South Mountain Creamery’s milk is local, fresh and bottled, it’s not organic, which is at least as much of a buzzword as local.

This, however, has not been a problem for the farm, says Abby Brusco, the Sowerses’ daughter, who, along with her husband, Tony, and brother and sister-in-law, Ben and Kate Sowers, help manage and work the farm, which has dozens of employees.

“Once you explain, people don’t seem to mind that we’re not certified organic,” Mrs. Brusco says.

For example, she says, the farm doesn’t use growth hormones (same as organic milk) or antibiotics on a regular basis (same as organic milk).

They differ, however, in how they deal with sick cattle.

“If you have an organic farm, you have to sell the cow that’s sick,” she says. “We don’t want to do that.”

A sick cow gets medication; and herbicides sometimes are used on the ground before crops are planted.

“So, I would say we’re as close to organic as we can be,” she says.

What seems more important to people, she says, is that they can come and see the cows and talk to the farmers.

“I think people feel like they have a personal connection here,” Mrs. Brusco says. “If they want to talk to the owner of the farm, they can.”

Not only that, the public can come and bottle-feed the calves at 4 p.m. daily.

Aside from milk, the farm produces and/or sells meat, cheese and eggs. Some of the products come from other farms and are resold by South Mountain Creamery.

Earlier this summer, the farm added produce — South Mountain Veggies — to its delivery offerings. Behind the enterprise are Abby and Tony Brusco, who say they have learned as much as their customers about what is local and in season in the summer.

“It’s a learning experience,” Mrs. Brusco says. “But if you’re buying local, it’s going to be limited to what’s in season, and in early June there just isn’t much.”

So, while many customers were gung-ho in the early stages of the enterprise, many dropped off after the first weeks of June - a time that yielded mostly onions and lettuces.

At which point the Bruscos polled their customers about possibly including fruits and berries from Florida.

“But the overwhelming response was, ‘No, I can get those at the grocery store,’ ” Mr. Brusco says. “So, it was basically ‘local or bust,’ ” he says. “I was both surprised and impressed with that response. … Local is our cornerstone.”

Customers who stuck with the produce delivery are seeing their weekly (reusable) bags stuffed to the max with nectarines, green beans, potatoes and kale.

So, what’s on the horizon for the farm?

Randy Sowers says he wants to improve the infrastructure by investing in renewable energy, including wind and solar power.

But beyond that — while the Sowerses and Bruscos are enjoying their success after years of hardship (in 2001 they were $1 million in debt, and the family has dealt with everything from cancer and diabetes to tumbling milk prices) — they’re not sure they want to get too much bigger.

Whoever heard of such a thing, a business that doesn’t want to grow?

“It’s tempting to expand and grow, but I think that will take away our edge,” Mrs. Brusco says.

Her husband agrees and highlights it with an example of why small and flexible can lead to responsiveness and high quality: The farm used to sell yogurt that contained high-fructose corn syrup. After customers complained, the farm changed the formula.

Now the yogurt contains no corn syrup or refined sugar but instead uses fruit-only jellies from local preserves-maker McCutcheon’s in Frederick, Md.

“It’s what resonates with customers: responsiveness, freshness and taste,” Mr. Brusco says. “The most common thing we hear is, ‘I didn’t know milk could taste this good.’ ”

Randy Sowers, a towering, no-nonsense fellow with a deep voice, puts it more plainly: “I like where we’re going,” he says. “But we just take one day at a time.”

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