BY FREDERICA TEMPLETON
PHOTOS BY CAROL SULLIVAN
It’s easy to take milk for granted. It’s been around for thousands of years and is a key ingredient in delicious dishes in diverse cultures all over the world. Over the past 150 years in Vermont, dairy farming has molded the landscape that many people now view as typically rural.
“The dairy landscape, with its gentle cows, geometric hay cuts and large cattle- and hay-holding barns, is a particularly beautiful one and worth preserving,” wrote Jan Albers in her book Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Whether it can be preserved is an open question. The gradual increase in the number of dairy farms at the turn of the last century came in response to the increased demand for this perishable product. A once-local staple in everyone’s diet, the development of refrigerated railroad cars meant the liquid milk could easily be shipped to large urban areas to meet increased demand. The dairy industry came to dominate Vermont’s agricultural output and its landscape.
But the economics of dairy farming has changed radically in the past 50 years and many dairy farmers have been forced to sell off their cows. In 2011 the number of dairy farms in Vermont fell below 1,000 for the first time in history, down from a high of 35,000 in 1880. Which makes Thomas Dairy in Rutland all the more unique, an operation that’s kept it all in the family for close to 150 years. And it has been so successful that it’s been able embrace other local families into the business.
As a child growing up on the family’s farm, John Thomas helped his father take care of the cows and later learned the distribution side of the business. Today John holds the position of treasurer and takes care of the advertising and marketing as well as customer service. His wife, Gayla, and his daughter Abby work in the front office. His Uncle Bill, who is 81 years old, is still active. Bill’s wife, Helen, is also in the front office and daughter Christa takes care of the bookkeeping. Cousin Dick Jr. oversees the processing and onsite packaging and cousin Perry is in charge of mechanical operations, including their 20 vehicles, and building maintenance. Perry is also the coordinator for HACCP, the FDA-sponsored program that ensures food safety hazards are rigorously controlled through constant monitoring and facility updates.
“This is a family business and family members make all the decisions at monthly meetings,” explained John. Dick Jr. is president, Perry is vice president and Christa is secretary; along with Uncle Bill, they are the current owners.
It all began four generations ago, in 1854, when the first Thomas purchased farmland in central Vermont just north of Rutland. In 1901 his son Orin bought his first Holstein, a dairy cow bred for its ability to produce abundant milk. The farm was 325 acres and the herd numbered 40 by the time his own son, also named Orin, took over in 1909.
Three years later the Thomas operation was big enough to begin delivering its farm-fresh milk to a local distributing plant that shipped milk to Boston in wooden railroad cars lined with ice. In 1921 the Thomas family decided to bottle its milk and deliver it every day to the homes of customers in Rutland City. Milk was not yet required to be pasteurized but the short time between milking and consumption minimized the risk of spoilage. In the early 20th century, the public health benefits of pasteurization gradually gained national recognition and in 1931 Thomas Dairy made the decision to put its milk through the heat-based pasteurization process even before this was required by federal law.
Homogenization was the next milk processing innovation adopted by the Thomas family, in 1947, the same year the company became incorporated. The fat in milk naturally rises to the surface. To distribute the fat evenly, raw milk is put through a mechanical process that breaks up the fat globules and allows the fat in the end product to be controlled, which is how it’s possible to have a variety of milk products with differing amounts of fat, from heavy cream to skim milk. This is a universally accepted practice today in the United States.
The next two decades brought expansion and improvements but also two devastating fires—in 1955 and again in 1968, when they lost the main cow barn (but luckily only one cow). The family rebuilt and carried on, expanding to 250 registered Holsteins and 500 acres of grazing land. They also now had five retail and two wholesale routes in central Vermont and continued to focus on the quality of their milk products. Thomas was one of the first businesses in the state to receive the Vermont Seal of Quality designation as part of the state Agency of Agriculture’s program to identify companies that maintained the highest industry standards for Vermont products.
A recent development in the dairy industry that Thomas Dairy refused to adopt is the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone known as rBGH or rBST, an artificially produced hormone that is injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. Though approved for use in the 1990s by the Food and Drug Administration, the Thomas family rejected the use growth hormones for several reasons. “We heard from a number of customers who urged us not to process milk containing the synthetic hormone,” said John. “We paid our producers extra not to use the hormone. As a result we lost one producer, but we we’ve been able to keep our milk hormone free.”
In 2005 the family decided to shift the focus of its business from producing to processing. The dairy business was changing rapidly with much consolidation into larger and larger conglomerates and reliable farm labor was hard to come by. The cattle and farm machinery were sold in 2005, and new storage tanks added. The processing plant had been upgraded with new equipment that made it possible to package their milk in plastic containers. Today, a diesel tanker truck goes out every day to pick up the milk from the six to seven small local dairy farms, generally with fewer than 100 cows, that are part of their milk business. The driver brings the raw milk back to the dairy’s processing plant on Route 7, where it is put into large storage tanks before the final conversion to four types of milk and to heavy cream. Milk samples are sent every other week to a lab in Saratoga to be tested for purity.
The difficulties of the dairy business are many, including the way milk is priced—which is, as the country recently was reminded, is all tied up with the U.S. Congress and the farm bill. Small dairy farmers and processors have an uphill battle to make a living because of the constant supply and demand fluctuations in the global market and how this affects prices, and the steadily increasing costs of the feed and fuel they need to keep their operations going.
John Thomas is hopeful that his family’s ability to adjust to the new realities will allow Thomas Dairy to remain a viable local supplier of milk from local farms. “We are very customer oriented,” he explained. “Our drivers go into every customer’s store on a regular schedule to check the inventory and make sure the shelves are filled in with our freshest products.”
Thomas’s goal is to keep up the volume, meet the demand and extend its territory. Thomas Dairy today distributes its own three types of milk, chocolate milk and heavy cream, as well as locally sourced cheese, yogurt and eggs. Their recent partnership with Black River Produce has been very beneficial and a good example of successful synergy between local companies.
John says they have no illusions about the pressures that will continue to make it difficult for local dairy farms to survive. It may become less and less true that Vermont and its landscape are defined by dairy farming, but he is encouraged by the number of young people who are building small, viable agricultural operations all over the state.
“We are encouraged by the optimistic attitude and work ethic of our neighboring producers and those qualities show in the high quality of the milk they send us. Our products are only as good as the raw milk we receive and we remain very confident in our milk supply.”
Next time you enjoy that cold glass of milk, thank your local milk producers, including those lovely Holsteins you can still see roaming Vermont’s hills and valleys.