Return of the milkman
May/June 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Family delivers fresh-from-the-cow convenience.
More online: Driving the Divco
As chief milkman for Top O' The Morn Farms, Ron Locke is bringing farm-fresh milk back to the doorsteps of Central Valley consumers. The milk comes from cows he raises at his family's Tulare County dairy.
Like any chief financial officer's workspace, Evie Locke's office is filled with framed family photos, stacks of invoices, file folders and various decor, including a milk crate from the early 1960s.
Originating from the dairy Evie's father, Fred De Boer, owned when she was born, the Top O' The Morn Farms crate is more declarative than decorative. For Evie and her husband, Ron, it represents a nostalgic era of agriculture they dreamed of bringing back.
Decades after the near-disappearance of the milkman, the Lockes have launched a glass-bottled, home-delivery milk business to bring Top O' The Morn Farms—and milk from their dairy—straight to the doorsteps of Central Valley homes. Like a handful of other home-delivery milk businesses in California, they offer the taste and convenience of farm-fresh milk. For many customers, it's the first time they've experienced milk this way.
It would seem the venture would be the Lockes' legacy, considering Evie's strong family ties to the dairy business. But it wasn't until about 10 years ago that Ron, who grew up in Riverside, traded his hard hat for Holsteins, leaving a career in construction to join his wife in her family's Tulare County dairy business.
"I didn't grow up in agriculture," Ron said. "I had farming all around me and always had fond memories, but I was never a part of agriculture until I met my wife."
Isabella Locke, 10, and Quinn Locke, 7, are two of Top O' The Morn Farms' biggest fans.
He can now add "chief milkman" to his resume.
In addition to running the day-to-day operations as the CEO of Top O' The Morn, Ron oversees the production and bottling of their milk, and makes deliveries to about 200 homes in the Tulare and Visalia areas.
It is the time he spent as a typical grocery shopper, largely separated from the farm, that inspired Ron to personally bridge the gap from cow to cup.
"It's a direct connection to the customer," he said, describing what makes Top O' The Morn unique. "With me making a lot of the deliveries during the day, I pull up to the house, and 50 percent of the people come out to talk to me. They have a direct line to the milk they are bringing into their home and sharing with their families."
Glass-bottled milk is a family tradition begun in the early 1960s by Evie Locke's parents, Fred and Jennie De Boer, far left. Today, Ron and Evie Locke (center, with children Quinn and Isabella) serve a new generation of consumers.
One of those families is the Verhoevens of Visalia, who order six to eight half-gallons of milk a week from the Lockes, including two half-gallons of chocolate milk. As a stay-at-home mother of two sets of twins, ages 9 and 5, Kay Verhoeven said it was more than just the personal connection that sparked her interest in the delivery service.
Mitch Moralez and Ron Locke fill glass bottles with milk. In addition to their home-delivery business, the Lockes have two drive-thru locations.
"Knowing the source and where my milk comes from is great, but most of all, I like the convenience," she said. "With all the kids, it can be crazy, and at least if I run out of milk, I know it will soon be on my doorstep."
The milk that fills the glass bottles comes from cows on the Lockes' own dairy. Most of the milk the family produces is sold to a dairy cooperative to make mozzarella cheese, but with this new venture, they now process and bottle the remaining milk to sell under their Top O' The Morn label. Customers in Visalia and Tulare can log onto www.farmfreshmilk.com, place their order and have Ron at their doorstep once a week with glass bottles full of milk from cows he personally cared for.
The process ensures a level of accountability and transparency that Ron said is a key component of their business model.
"We really want to build the trust of our consumers," he said. "Doing everything ourselves allows us to have direct control of the process, and better quality. We keep control of the handling, temperature, marketing—everything—every step of the way. Maybe sales aren't growing as fast as they would if we were on 20 grocery store shelves, but that's not our primary focus."
Not to say that profitability isn't a consideration. In fact, the milk-delivery venture is an effort to restore economic sustainability to the family farm in the midst of a crisis.
Rising feed costs and declining milk sales have contributed to California, the nation's largest dairy state, losing 387 dairies over the last five years, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture statistics. The state saw a loss of 105 dairies in 2012 alone, the highest decline in at least a decade.
The Lockes are at the center of the state's dairy activity, with their home of Tulare County leading the nation in milk production. They have seen fellow dairy families forced out of business and knew they needed an innovative approach to remain solvent.
Thus far, the effort has paid off. In addition to their home-delivery business, the Lockes have opened two drive-thru locations in Tulare and Visalia, where customers can pick up milk, as well as local cheese, local eggs and locally roasted coffee. Their customer list grows daily, fueled in large part by social media efforts.
Britni Meendering greets Danny Costales as he cruises through to make a purchase.
"Communication is instant, with Facebook, social media and cell phones. We will get a customer email at 7 a.m. and by 9 a.m., we have those questions answered," Ron said. "We have 100 percent interaction with customers. We are very tied to them."
For Evie, the tie to her family heritage is also one of the greatest pleasures of Top O' The Morn Farms.
Her father transitioned out of ownership of a glass-bottled, home-delivered milk business when Evie was young. Though she grew up knowing the more conventional side of dairy farming, she always wanted to rekindle the direct relationship between dairy farmer and consumer, while also strengthening the family bond to the farm.
The Lockes have five children between them, ranging in age from 7 to 23. They now have the chance to share the taste of farm-fresh milk with their children, a product that is a direct result of their family's hard work and ingenuity.
"We raised our kids on store-bought milk and finally we get to drink our own milk," Evie said.
The first bottle of their own Top O' The Morn Farms glass-bottled milk was reserved for Evie's 76-year-old father.
It was a way to honor her parents for their support, but also reciprocated a similar gesture made by De Boer a decade ago—when he presented his daughter with an old milk crate from his glass bottling milk business—the same milk crate that sits in Evie's office today.
Driving the Divco
The unofficial mascot of Top O' The Morn Farms is Divco, the dairy's 1961 milk truck, built specifically for delivering milk to customers' homes.
Divco is the actual brand name of the truck, which is an acronym for Detroit Industrial Vehicles Co. The company was founded in 1926, and according to the Divco Club of America (yes, there's a club!), the last Divco trucks were produced in 1986, after the company went into bankruptcy.
When the Lockes first began talking about launching a home-delivery milk business, Ron Locke knew he wanted to find an old Divco milk truck to bear the Top O' The Morn Farms name. He searched for about five years until he found a Divco Dividend on eBay. After a lengthy bidding war, Divco was brought from Oregon to the family farm in Tulare.
The Lockes had to restore the old, rare truck, and during that process discovered that Divco's serial number is one.
Although Divco has been returned to its former glory, it is reserved for promotional purposes and is not fast enough to keep up the tight delivery schedule for Top O' The Morn Farms and their growing customer list. Still, Divco serves a great purpose and brings a bit of nostalgia back to Central California streets when it does make outings.
"You just look at it and it represents home delivery," Ron said.