by Philip Gruber
CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Trickling Springs Creamery, a modestly sized processor of organic and natural dairy products, exemplifies the rapid growth occurring in the organic milk market.
From its retail store and plant in Chambersburg, the company, opened in 2001, distributes a variety of fluid milk and value-added products to grocery stores and restaurants from Connecticut to Florida to Ohio.
Walking into the cavernous refrigerated storage and order-picking area added a few years ago, Joe Miller, the company’s marketing manager, said the company actually could have built a much larger addition.
“When they started, I don’t think they had any idea it would go as far as it has,” Miller said of the two friends who opened the business 13 years ago.
The goal from the beginning was to sell freshly processed, very high quality dairy products to Franklin County and the surrounding region. The partners decided to emphasize animal welfare, grass feeding and minimal processing, Miller said.
The partners soon got their organic certification and moved into the D.C. market, where the company now has a retail location at Union Market, Miller said.
Starting with Trickling Springs-branded organic milk, the company branched into all-natural milk under the FarmFriend label. In 2012, they added goat milk.
The growth in the organic line is outpacing the growth in FarmFriend sales. Miller said he believes the third-party verification required for organic milk makes a difference to consumers.
Hopefully the customer trusts that Trickling Springs is doing what it says when it produces the all-natural milk, but the organic certification offers an additional layer of assurance, he said.
Over time, the company has also added a number of value-added dairy products: butter, yogurt smoothies, organic ice cream, even a brief foray into yogurt cups.
Beyond offering fun flavors and appeasing an intense area of consumer interest, the value-added products help the processor manage its milk stocks.
Cows’ springtime bump in milk production is especially pronounced in pasture-based systems, so freezable products like ice cream, butter and cheese can be made early in the year and stored until they are needed, Miller said.
With a 90-day shelf life, yogurt smoothies do not afford the same level of flexibility as ice cream, but they help too, he said.
The procedure works the same on a weekly scale. If the company has too much milk, it can work in an extra run of yogurt. “Next week, when we might not need it, we can pull back a little bit,” Miller said.
Yogurt and cheese are fast-growing parts of the business, though fluid milk is still Trickling Springs’ biggest product, Miller said.
To keep the milk minimally processed, it is important to start with only high-quality milk, Miller said.
Using milk produced by grass-fed, mostly colored-breed cows, Trickling Springs is able to offer milk that is pasteurized at the lowest temperature allowed by law, 165 degrees F for 15 seconds, he said.
In addition to the standard homogenized milk, the company offers non-homogenized milk in addition, which reduces the processing even more, Miller said.
“There’s excellent milk going into the conventional milk stream, but it’s not allowed to shine” because the premium milk gets mixed with the run-of-the-mill product, he said.
As a result, the milk has to be overprocessed to achieve proper homogenization, he said.
Minimal processing also means avoiding additives. Trickling Springs’ whole milk contains no added vitamin A or D. Its plain yogurt is just milk and yogurt cultures with neither thickeners nor preservatives, Miller said.
The flavored yogurts, of course, contain fruit purees, concentrates and other products, he said.
The butter, too, is made a little differently. The low-spin churn allows the butter to break from the buttermilk naturally. The resulting 91 to 93 percent butterfat content is the highest Miller knows of in the country.
Even though it is growing, Trickling Springs still has the feel of a smaller processor. The ice cream base is churned in small batches of 300 gallons, and workers fill ice cream containers individually.
To supply all of its product lines, the creamery buys milk from 15 organic dairies, two natural and grass-fed dairies, and three goat dairies.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy to find these farms, but they’re out there,” Miller said.
The company is always looking for more organic grass-fed farms because demand is growing so strongly, he said.
The company has to plan ahead because organic certification typically takes three years. “I’ve got to be looking two years out, three years out, and thinking, Where’s my milk coming from?’ “ Miller said.
Five of the organic farms give the cows a minimal organic grain supplement for energy, but the rest of the farms are 100 percent grass-fed. None of the animals get corn silage, he said.
Most companies value customer interaction, but it is particularly important for Trickling Springs. Their niche-market customers have lots of questions about how the cows are treated and how their food is produced.
Miller said he gets a lot of “Why do you use this ingredient in your ice cream?”
He said he is happy to answer the questions, not least because the feedback helps show where customers’ preferences are going.
Customer comments are what convinced the company to pursue Project Verified certification for products free of genetically modified organism, or GMOs.
The company had been weighing the move internally for two years and had previously only asked their farmers not to raise GMO crops, Miller said.
“We’ve gotten to the point where our customers are demanding verification,” he said.
After GMOs, animal welfare is the biggest concern consumers have right now. Trickling Springs is working on Food Alliance certification to give customers further affirmation there, Miller said.
In addition to its retail locations, Trickling Springs sells to Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market, many independent stores, plus restaurants and coffee shops. The milk is also distributed through door-to-door and pickup-point delivery services, Miller said.
Trickling Springs is even drawing interest from conventional grocers who want to serve their organic-hungry consumers, he said.
This year the company signed a lease on a 350-cow herd in Missouri and reached an agreement with a goat farmer there. The new plant will produce milk and value-added products.
“Hopefully the two of us won’t be affected by the same weather systems at a time, though it can happen,” Miller said.
The Missouri plant’s fluid milk will supply the Kansas City, Memphis and St. Louis markets, and the Pennsylvania and Missouri sectors will exchange value-added products, Miller said.
The expansion is drawing interest from Midwestern chains, offering opportunities for Trickling Springs to expand even more, he said.
“It’s going to be an exciting two years ahead as we see how people respond to that,” Miller said.