With COVID-19 as a spur, Contoocook Creamery adds plastic bottles

  • Jamie Robertson in the bottling room at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday, April 13, 2020. The farm can bottle both with glass and plastic containers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Paul Hunt monitors the bottling machine at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday. The farm can bottle both with glass and plastic containers. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Bram Robertson checks the levels in the milk holding tank in the bottling room at Bohanan Farm.

  • The bottling machine at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday, April 13, 2020. The farm can bottle both with glass and plastic containers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jamie Robertson packs up a gallon of milk the bottling room at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday. The farm can bottle both with glass and plastic containers. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Some of the milking cows at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday.

  • Paul Hunt monitors the bottling machine as quarts of coffee mile in plastic containers are fed out at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday, April 13, 2020. The farm can bottle both with glass and plastic containers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jamie Robertson packs up a quarts of coffee milk in plastic containers in the bottling room at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton on Tuesday.

  • The bottling machine puts on a plastic top to a quart of coffee milk in a plastic container at Bohanan Farm.

Monitor staff
Published: 4/18/2020 1:14:38 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed many business plans. At Contoocook Creamery, it has accelerated them.

“For 10 years we’ve been trying to get 100% of our milk production through this system,” said Jamie Robertson, gesturing around the bottling room at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton, which is unusual among small New England dairies in that it can process its own milk. “We’ve got about 20% and we’ve been scratching our heads to get the other 80% sold.”

Doing their own pasteurizing and bottling instead of shipping raw milk in 5,000-gallon Agri-Mark trucks to another processor gives Contoocook Creamery a higher return and helps protect them from the vagaries of the wholesale milk market, where prices have fallen to the point that many dairy farms are closing.

The step that the family farm has been eyeing to expand its sales is selling milk in plastic jugs as well as in the glass bottles, which have been their mainstay. Many more outlets would sell Contoocook Dairy milk if it came in plastic jugs, which are lighter and less likely to break than glass and don’t carry the difficulty and expense of handling returns. Some outlets might also be willing to sell the farm’s milk under their own brand in plastic, expanding the market considerably.

Three weeks ago, those plans suddenly crystalized when Hannaford told them concern about coronavirus means it would no longer accept glass bottle returns just as it no longer allows customers to bring their own bags into the store. The dairy upgraded the processing plant, which is attached to the milking parlor and gets the milk directly pumped in (“it never touches the air,” notes Jamie Robertson).

They bought new machinery to attach and seal caps on plastic bottles as well as machinery to put on labels – a total cost of around $12,500 – and rushed to install it. As of a week ago about half of its production of whole milk and various flavored milks goes into plastic bottles.

The family knows the customer appeal of glass milk bottles. They’ve got a collection of old bottles in their store, including several from long-gone Concord dairies, and they hear from customers who like the taste and the ecological value of not generating more plastic waste. But to generate enough money to support several families on a farm without room to expand the herd – they milk about 180 cows, three times a day – the farm needs to boost revenue and cut costs.

“Obviously we wanted to stay with glass as long as we could. We knew we were going to have to go to plastic someday,” said Bram Robertson, youngest of the three sons who are working on the farm, which has been in the family for five generations.

The farm generates about 400,000 pounds of milk a month. It covers 440 acres, about half of which is open pasture or farmland, the rest wooded or wetlands. It was featured on the History Channel’s reality-TV show American Farm.

On average, Bram Robertson said, the glass jugs, which are made in Canada, are reused three times. But there’s only about a 60% return rate and the farm has never been able to build up a big enough backlog of bottles to cut down on purchases.

Each glass bottle costs about $2 while a plastic jug costs about 30 cents, plus a little extra cost for the label. Even factoring in glass reuse, plastic is much cheaper for the dairy, although that doesn’t include recycling or landfilling the bottles when they’re empty, a cost that is spread out to consumers and communities.

One interesting thing that has happened from the COVID-19 lockdown is that in-person business at the farm has boomed even though it requires perseverance to maneuver around the massive potholes in the dirt driveway and find the door.

“Business at the store is 20 times what it was,” said Bram Robertson. It’s partly that people are stuck at home but also “they don’t want to go into supermarkets.”

Another change that COVID-19 has wrought is that the dairy has lost all its business selling to restaurants, which buy milk in 5-gallon bags, and schools, but fortunately that wasn’t a big part of their sales anyway.

As to whether the switch to plastic will keep the farm going into a sixth generation, that remains to be seen.

“We’re not sure this is going to do it,” said Jamie Robertson. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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