Hope in a Glass Bottle

September 30, 2013 03:16 AM
Hope in a Glass Bottle

Root-beer flavored milk? A California dairy tries its hand at bottling and selling its own milk

California dairy producers Noel and Rolland Rosa are breaking from the status quo in a big way. In an effort to decrease price volatility at their third-generation dairy, the brothers have expanded beyond conventional milk marketing channels into their own milk-bottling niche.

A year ago, the Rosas celebrated the grand opening of Rosa Brothers Milk Company, a processing operation they launched in Tulare, Calif. Their 6,000-sq.-ft. plant produces several flavors of glass-bottled milk and packages ice cream in pints and 3-gal. tubs. Milk comes from their 1,000-cow dairy 15 miles away in Hanford.

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  • Get more details on Rosa Brothers Milk Company here.
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  • Learn more about USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grants here.

"This venture will allow us to give our children the opportunity to stay in production agriculture," says Noel, president of the new venture. "We could have gone another way to escape shrinking margins, like expanding our dairy, but we decided on a different avenue."

Production has doubled since the creamery’s September 2012 start, climbing to 700 gal., or 1,800 bottles, of milk a day. In the past year, their distribution of the high-quality bottled milk has increased to more than 35 retail outlets, mostly along Freeway 99 between Fresno, Calif., and Bakersfield, Calif. Their customers include supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants. The Rosas also operate a retail store at the creamery.

"We’d thought about doing this for a long time," Noel says. "We saw there was no one in Kings or Tulare County who was bottling only local milk. Then 2009 hit. We thought we should get serious. We still were not sure how bad things were going to get."

The brothers discussed the risk of a milk-bottling operation and did their research. They visited other U.S. dairies that had expanded into milk bottling. They also hired a company to get consumer opinions.

Rosa Bros sign

Rosas’ distribution of the high-quality bottled milk has increased to more than 35 retail outlets, mostly along Freeway 99 between Fresno and Bakersfield, Calif.

"We found that consumers prefer the taste of glass-bottled milk to plastic-bottled milk," Noel says. "We also found out that the only way a small processor or producer could succeed was through a grassroots approach."

In late 2009, Noel drafted a business plan and soon after began looking for a place to build a creamery. "We wanted to be next to Freeway 99 to be able to distribute to Fresno and Bakersfield," he says.

The search for a processing site wasn’t easy. "We wasted most of 2010 and 2011 on real estate deals that didn’t work out," he says.

Finally, Noel came across a warehouse with front retail space in Tulare. The property had been vacant for three years, but it was only a mile from Freeway 99 and zoned for dairy processing and retail operations. The Rosas bought it. Noel says the cost to purchase the property and build the creamery was "in the millions."

In 2011, the Rosas sold their sideline trucking business to focus on their creamery. That trucking background has benefitted them as they distribute their milk bottles to Central Valley retail outlets. That same year, they received a $300,000 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant. The working capital grant helps with utilities, labor and other operating costs.

Today, the processing plant employs 15 workers to bottle whole, reduced-fat and skim milk, and half and half, as well as package ice cream. The facility uses less than 10% of the dairy’s output; the rest goes to Land O’Lakes.

Rosa Bros fridge

The Rosas process fluid milk and retail a portion of it from their Tulare, Calif., plant.

Rosa Brothers Milk Company actively uses its website and social media like Facebook to connect with con­sumers. Tours of the Hanford dairy are a major part of the creamery’s marketing. Family members and employees are involved in community events and farmers’ markets and regularly conduct in-store tastings and demonstrations. The Rosas have gone way beyond chocolate and strawberry milk, diversifying their milk offerings with unusual but popular flavors like orange-cream and root beer. And their list of retail customers is growing.

"The tide is turning," says Noel, who spends most of his time at the creamery while Rolland manages the cows. "For the first six months, we were knocking on doors and being told, ‘No.’ Now, enough people have tasted our product and are asking for it. Now, we’re getting calls."

The biggest challenge, Noel says, is letting go of ingrained farmer responsibilities and embracing new ones at the creamery. "For 20 years, I was on the farm every day," he says. "I’m in a different world now."

The Rosas’ milk-bottling enterprise has drawn significant interest from area dairies looking for new survival strategies. "The dairy industry has changed so much," Noel says. "More and more people are starting to look outside of the box." 

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