Califonia Bountiful

Bottled up

September/October 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Dairy family uses glass containers and fun flavors to reinvigorate milk sales

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Lyric Morgan Pearson, granddaughter of Debbie and Rick Nutcher, holds a bottle of strawberry-flavored milk from Nutcher Milk Co. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

As someone who milks cows for a living, Rick Nutcher is keenly aware of a national trend that's been a nagging concern for those in the business: Americans don't drink as much milk as they used to.

About seven years ago, the Stanislaus County dairy farmer set out on a research mission visiting dairies in other parts of the country to look for innovative ways to improve his business—and encourage people to drink more milk.

"That's when I got the glass idea and the direction I wanted to go," Nutcher said.

In 2015, he opened his own milk-bottling facility on his Modesto dairy and began selling milk in glass containers. He also introduced a variety of "fun" flavors so that drinking milk is "more of a treat." His milks are now sold in stores throughout Northern and Central California.

For those old enough to remember drinking milk out of glass bottles, Nutcher Milk Co. brings a bit of nostalgia, harkening back to a time when the familiar staple came delivered along with the morning paper. For younger generations, the milks represent more of a novelty with retro appeal.

For Nutcher, using glass not only helps him distinguish his product from the sea of beverage options jockeying for space in the grocery aisle, but it gets people interested in milk again.

"It's a great presentation," he said. "It's a way to get shelf spacing and a way to get more people drinking milk."

Still, Nutcher acknowledged that store shelves have become crowded. Confronted with sodas, juices, energy drinks, bottled water, plant-based "milks" and a slew of other beverages, cow's milk faces a wider array of competition.

Stanislaus County dairy farmer Rick Nutcher, top left, operates his dairy farm on the same site as his milk-bottling facility, above, allowing him to bottle his milk within an hour and a half of it leaving the dairy. Debbie and Rick Nutcher, top right. Photos: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

New products aim to moo-ve milk

This isn't a recent phenomenon. National milk consumption has been slowly declining since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and people have become less inclined to drink milk with their meals.

With Americans choosing more on-the-go foods for breakfast, sales of cereal have dropped, reducing demand for milk, said John Newton, market intelligence director for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Rather than chugging a glass of milk, Americans are increasingly consuming their milk in the form of other dairy products, especially cheese, yogurt and butter, said John Talbot, CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board, which promotes California milk and dairy products.

"They're not drinking it as much, but eating it more," he said.

These changes in people's eating habits may continue to affect U.S. milk consumption, he said, but there are companies trying to reverse this trend with new products such as higher-protein milks, for example, in hopes of "sparking some interest, some excitement," the way Greek yogurt did for yogurt.

Rick Nutcher stacks crates of bottled milk inside the cold-storage facility at Nutcher Milk Co. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

Appealing to younger generations

That's been Nutcher's aim, with his glass bottles and flavored milks, but he said his other focus is on taste.

Because he bottles only his own milk, he said he can control what he feeds his cows, which can affect how the milk tastes. Also, with his bottling facility right next door to his dairy, he's able to bottle his milk within an hour and a half of it leaving the dairy, assuring freshness. Glass bottles help, he added, because they do not impart any other flavors to the milk.

Though he sells 2 percent reduced-fat milk, Nutcher's best seller continues to be plain whole milk. All of his flavored milks are made with whole milk. This allows him to use less sugar because whole milk has more cream, which is sweet.

"I'm trying to keep it as close to what the cow made, which is good, sweet milk," he said.

In addition to chocolate and strawberry, his other flavors include cotton candy, which he described as "Froot Loops cereal milk with a little cotton candy flavor"; root beer, which tastes like the bottom half of a root beer float with melted vanilla ice cream; orange cream, reminiscent of the ice cream bar with orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream; and pumpkin spice and eggnog, two seasonal flavors available only in the fall. Last year, he rolled out two new products: caffeinated milks in coffee and mocha flavors, both of which taste like iced coffee with cream. He also recently added lactose-free versions of his strawberry and cotton candy flavors.

"It's a way to get younger generations drinking milk and excited about milk," he said. "Yeah, it's got sugar in it, but they're getting their calcium and they're getting their protein. It'll be a treat instead of, 'I've got to drink milk because Mom told me to.'"

Rick Nutcher steps inside an antique milk truck that now carries his company name and logo. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

Local food movement spurs interest

Nutcher said he's hearing positive feedback from customers when he does store demos to promote his products and at his own store on the dairy.

"There's a lot of kids whose parents are saying, 'It's the only way my kids will drink milk,'" he said.

Fellipe Francisco, a Central Valley cattle breeder, said he had seen Nutcher's storefront while driving the countryside and decided to check it out one day. He's been a return customer ever since and even brought along his father when he was visiting from Brazil.

"The quality of milk is really good," he said, noting his favorite is strawberry. "My family and my kids really love it."

With the local food movement going strong and people wanting to know where their food comes from, Nutcher said he thinks his product is a perfect fit for the times.

"People can buy our milk and come visit our dairy," he said. "They can Google it: This is where the milk comes from. This is the spot. It comes from this one dairy. We work very hard being transparent, having really good employees and taking great care of our cows."

Ching Lee

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