Flashback: two NY/NJ dairy plant owners shift assets from regulated ‘commodity’ dairy milk to freedom of branded non-dairy ‘milk’

nondairymilk.jpgAuthor’s note: Below are two articles from two interviews August 2016 and November 2017 with two separate owners of two separate plants in the New York / New Jersey metropolis that were closed or sold in the past two years. Today, the Schwartz family (Elmhurst Dairy, Queens, NY) and Catalana family (Cumberland Dairy, Bridgeton, NJ) are involved in developing and launching new non-dairy plant, nut and grain based beverages in the supermarket dairy case. This trend toward making plant-based versions of animal protein products is also becoming a problem for the meat industry.

For dairy milk, the root of the issue is the alliance between USDA and the anti-trust-protected national-footprint milk cooperatives. First, USDA designates dairy milk as a “commodity” with an FDA standard of identity that is only enforced on dairy milk, not on plant-based ‘milks.’ USDA also runs the federal order milk pricing system on fresh fluid milk. USDA also dictates what schoolchildren are permitted to drink, currently allowing only fat free or 1% milk, despite scientific proof to the contrary that whole milk (3.25% fat) is the most healthy value. USDA also dictates what the dairy promotion boards may and may not do to promote fresh fluid milk using money the USDA mandates every farmer must have deducted off their milk checks for said promotion. USDA and the promotion boards push the lowfat agenda despite it being proven to be less healthy than full-fat dairy.

In their separate situations, Henry Schwartz and the Catalana brothers got out of commodity dairy milk and are developing and launching plant-based beverages with free rein in the supermarket “dairy” case.

BELOW ARE THEIR STORIES…

Story #1 – By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine August 2016

New York City’s last milk plant, Elmhurst Dairy, closes doors

JAMAICA QUEENS, N.Y. —  He says the commodity milk category is ‘unsustainable’ and that the future lies in new brands.

At 82, Henry Schwartz has witnessed the evolution of dairy. Food and farming look very different today compared to when he was six years old, spending his youth on the family’s former dairy farm and in their milk plant.

His family’s Elmhurst Dairy was the combination of two dairy farms and milk plants in Queens County, New York — one owned by his paternal grandparents, the other by his maternal grandmother.

The farms have been gone since 1948, and in October (2016), the Elmhurst Dairy plant in Jamaica, Queens, New York, will close its doors too.

With this closure of New York City’s last fluid milk plant, a long and storied series of chapters in the milk business will end.

But with every end, comes a beginning, and Henry Schwartz sees light at the end of his tunnel.

“I’m not depressed anymore,” he said in a telephone interview with Farmshine. “We have other businesses that are related to dairy, and they are successful. We will be bringing out new products under the Elmhurst name.”

Henry referenced the family’s Steuben Foods, Inc. plant near Buffalo, N.Y. where 600 people are employed. Its aseptic packaging spawned a new line of beverages in June of 2015, called Elmhurst Naturals — an offshoot of Henry’s son Cyrus’ business Dora’s Naturals. (Examples include Banana Water and Mango Water). Henry also referenced the family’s Mountainside plant near Roxbury, N.Y., where filtered milk with a longer shelf life has been bottled since 2006.

With both plants already expanded into aseptic packaging and Natural market lines, the next sequence, said Henry, will be further expansion at Steuben into grain, nut and seed beverage products already set to generate half a billion in sales.

Henry was quick to give heartfelt thanks “to a great many people who worked so hard for so long to see that we succeeded.”

He also cited the “enormous economic impact” the company has had in the area through the dairy business.

But, he said, in order to continue to have positive economic impact, things had to change. They had to break free of commodity milk.

“The future of the milk business is value-added,” said Henry. “The milk business as I knew it is unsustainable. Nobody talks about the price of milk anymore, they talk about all of these other things. They talk about quality and services. That is the evolution and an indication that we do not have a totally sound business model in (conventional) milk, so we are trying to diversify in the marketplace.”

When asked whether brand marketing within the conventional dairy milk category can help save this seemingly “unsustainable future,” Henry commented that there are “outstanding people in the marketplace coming out with cutting edge new products.”

He mentioned what fairlife has done to bring out what is basically milk and to market it as a brand.

He mentioned what Chobani did to “take limited assets and build a billion dollar company inside of seven years on branding an old-style yogurt right in front of our eyes.”

He talked about how Daisy revived the sour cream category by specializing in it and branding it.

And he mentioned other products, like the genesis of Lactaid milk right out of Atlantic City and later sold to Johnson and Johnson.

He also mentioned Organic milk as a branded category that “started from scratch into a billion-dollar category.”

“We can create with milk and dairy products tremendous success stories and brands if we are willing to work at it,” Henry elaborated. “In many ways, our Steuben Foods — operating as an offshoot of Elmhurst but now much bigger — is doing that.”

Yes, the Schwartz family of businesses, including Dora’s Naturals started from scratch by Cyrus, is transforming itself according to the wishes of the urban New York City consumers.

Henry’s word of wisdom to the dairy farmers who ship milk to the New York City plant that is closing? “Diversify.”

It was obvious after a 45-minute conversation that he has a soft-spot for dairy farming. But his family’s younger generation is following the trends. They value the economic contribution to the community and dairy legacy of the generations before them, but they see even more economic opportunity and job creation in diversifying their efforts into a variety of beverages and breaking free of the commodity-milk market.

Henry could barely bring himself to call them all ‘milk,’ but he had enthusiasm as he talked of the future. He said that “exciting new products” — derived from grains, nuts and seeds — will be the wave of the future as the family diversifies into branded plant-based beverage businesses, which their website refers to as ‘grainmilk’ and ‘nutmilk’.

Already one of the largest Organic dairy milk processors in the nation under contract for Horizon and other brands, the Schwartz family’s Steuben Foods and Roxbury plants will continue in dairy milk, but Steuben will also branch out into the newer non-dairy beverage categories as well.

Henry said the Roxbury plant is expected to expand opportunities in both the dairy and non-dairy fields also. He said the family has many interesting and proprietary product concepts in store.

“We will continue to be a large milk handler,” he said. “We will also be doing a lot in grains and nuts and seeds. Part of our future will be cow’s milk. That will certainly continue. I have had my whole life in it. There is a bright future ahead and the continuation of something our family started over 130 years ago when my great-grandfather opened the first family farm plant in Middle Village in the 1880s. We are pleased to continue in this milk business, but that continuation will look different in the future than it did in the past.”

The Jamaica, Queens property — where the ubiquitous red barn and silo label of Elmhurst Dairy now fades — will become the site of any one of a number of projects Henry said his family is currently working on.

“I spent a good deal of my youth at my grandmother’s farm plant, Juniper Valley Dairy, where she milked 200 cows, bottled the milk and delivered it until 1948. She was the last farm in Queens County,” he said. Meanwhile, his paternal grandfather’s dairy farm spawned the original Elmhurst Dairy plant, which was started by Henry’s father and uncle at their father’s dairy farm in nearby Middle Village.

“They got all of that together here in Jamaica, Queens in 1948, where we are the last milk plant in the area. Now that it is closing, we expect to make use of the land in a way that is more beneficial to ourselves and to the community,” said Henry.

“It is an evolution of what was once dairy farms that became a dairy company and now is going into other fields that will be beneficial,” he added.

“Yes, it is sad. I spent 76 years, my whole life in it. When I saw the end coming, I was initially upset. But now I realize it is for the best. Even though it is a big change, we are going to use the property in a way that will be good for the community, and we will continue in the milk business near Buffalo, New York, through other forms — both cow’s milk and with grains, nuts and seeds,” he said.

Bottom line according to Henry Schwartz: The future is very much agriculture-based but not 100 percent dairy-milk based. That can be said of the future for the Schwartz family in the post-dairy era as it can be said of the urban food and beverage marketplace of New York City for which they are building new brands and expanding in plant-based beverages.

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Story #2 – By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, November 2017

DFA buys Cumberland Dairy, New Jersey’s last independent fluid milk processor

BRIDGETON, N.J. — Cumberland Dairy, the last independent fluid milk processor in New Jersey, was acquired by Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.  The plant has been co-op supplied through Land O’Lakes and its predecessors Atlantic and Interstate as well as Maryland-Virginia milk cooperatives, since its founding, according to president Carmine Catalana IV.

In a phone interview with Farmshine Tuesday (Nov. 7), Carmine said they are moving forward with their current milk supply, which includes a few DFA members commingled on local milk routes.

He acknowledged that the Bridgeton, New Jersey company had interest from other buyers, but that a big consideration in accepting DFA’s acquisition offer — at an undisclosed price – was that Carmine and his brothers would continue in the leadership of the company with the backing of the nation’s largest milk cooperative.

Cumberland Dairy, founded in 1933 by Charles Catalana, is run today by third generation brothers Carmine IV, Frank and David.

The business will continue to operate as Cumberland Dairy, and the (180) employees will retain their current positions, according to DFA’s public announcement of the acquisition. The announcement stated further that, “The Catalana family and existing management team will continue to manage all day-to-day operations, including customer relationships, milk procurement and production.”

“We have the opportunity to move the company forward with the blue-chip customers we serve, and other benefits are sure to come with the backing of a national milk cooperative with 13,000 dairy farms behind them,” said Carmine.

In its press release last Thursday (Nov. 2, 2017), DFA described Cumberland Dairy as a company “proudly serving some of the nation’s top quick-service restaurants, convenience and grocery chains, wholesale food distributors, fine-casual restaurants and dessert concepts to a variety of customers,” stating that the acquisition aligns with DFA’s strategy… to expand into extended shelf life processing.

“DFA approached us because we are one of several extended shelf life (ESL) plants, and they were looking to enter this marketplace and acquire our technology and customer base,” Carmine told Farmshine.

Since the mid-1980s, the plant has been doing ultra high heat pasteurization ESL products in ultra clean packaging to deliver shelf life over 75 days for refrigerated liquid dairy products.

Their ESL process is different from the UHT aseptic packaging that DFA currently uses on the West Coast to package California Gold — a primarily 3.5% fat shelf-stable drinking milk with a non-refrigerated shelf life of one year — which is shipped to Walmart and other chains in China. Those fluid milk sales to China have grown every year since 2014.

“We have not taken the big financial and technology step into the aseptic shelf-stable non-refrigerated dairy market,” said Carmine. But, over the last 30-plus years, the Catalanas have been innovators in the ESL space, before the concept of extended shelf life had a name or an acronym.

DFA noted in an email response that upgrades for aseptic shelf-stable technology may be considered for export from this East Coast plant.

Carmine notes that once his family had implemented an ESL process with a flavor close to fresh milk, “we stopped doing the regular pasteurized milk as a relatively small player, and sold our roots off to a customer, and did nothing but ESL,” Carmine said as he explained the company’s evolution of moving away from conventional milk bottling toward producing their own ESL liquid dairy products under the Freshlife brand and especially into co-packing for private labels.

For example, they do milk and dairy products for Rosenberger’s and other dairies, like Rutters, Schneiders, Wawa, Gallikers, Turkey Hill, and Turner Dairies. While they do everything liquid and refrigerated — from skim milk to heavy cream to dessert mixes — the emphasis is on the ESL products like egg nog, half-and-half and other cream products.

Cumberland Dairy also makes McDonald’s milkshake mix, Rita’s frozen custard, Shake Shack sakes and Kohr Bros. frozen custard, to name a few. In fact, the company’s website shows photos marking when the company began making milkshake mix for “that new drive-in restaurant in the area called McDonald’s” in 1971.

“Most of what we produce has someone else’s label on it,” said Carmine. “We do these products for other dairies, these family businesses that we hold dear as our customers.”

He sees a bright future for the products they currently manufacture. “We have had some conversations with DFA about where this portion of the business is going and how it has continued to grow,” Carmine related. “We felt like this was not something we had the ability to do on our own, and that in DFA, with that many dairy farmers behind them, we had the best partner for the future.”

In an official statement, Carmine said that, “A future with DFA means that we can continue to focus on our values as a company while accelerating our opportunities for growth. This is a very exciting time for the entire Cumberland Dairy family, and we look forward to this next chapter with DFA.”

For DFA’s part, the acquisition “represents a commitment by our farmer-owners to expand our investments in processing and to continue to grow the U.S. dairy industry,” said DFA president and CEO Rick Smith in a DFA press release.

“There are not many independents dairy plants left in this business,” Carmine reflects. “We were the last independent fluid milk processor in New Jersey.”

The Catalana family’s sister business — Innovation Foods LLC, founded by the Catalanas in 2008 — is not included in this transaction with DFA. It will remain independent and wholly-owned by the family, according to the announcement.

At the Cumberland Dairy website, the Catalana family’s retained Innovation Foods LLC is described as “producing high-acid beverage products for our partner NextFoods under their GoodBelly brand.” According to their website, NextFoods, Inc. was founded by Steve Demos, the founder and former president of WhiteWave (makers of Silk soymilk, almondmilk, etc) along with Todd Beckman, a former vice president of business operations at WhiteWave. Their website explains that Demos and Beckman built their NextFoods team to include many who worked at WhiteWave where they helped launch Silk Soymilk “into the stratosphere.”

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One thought on “Flashback: two NY/NJ dairy plant owners shift assets from regulated ‘commodity’ dairy milk to freedom of branded non-dairy ‘milk’

  1. Pingback: Global dairy thoughts Part I: Whirlpool of change. Who’s minding the store? | Ag Moos

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