VERMONT -- Getting food cooperatives to cooperate with one another is no easy task, says Clem Nilan, merchandising manager for City Market. It took weeks of wrangling, for example, before the Burlington co-op and its counterparts in Middlebury and Montpelier could thrash out a consensus on the design of a label for gallon jugs of milk that the three stores are jointly marketing under their own brand.
"Vermont Co-op Milk" is now available on cooler shelves at City Market/Onion River Co-op, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier. It's an unprecedented venture made possible by an agreement with Monument Farms, a 76-year-old, family-owned dairy in Weybridge.
In an effort to sustain one of the last dairies in the state that bottles its own milk, the co-ops will pay a fixed, year-round price for Monument Farms milk, helping protect the producer from the mostly downward market gyrations that have made family dairy farming in Vermont a losing proposition in recent years. The deal was sealed with handshakes rather than written contracts among the various parties.
"It makes sense for co-ops to support a local dairy because we are committed to local economies," Nilan says. "There's no downside to this project -- not for the farmers, not for the co-ops and not for the customer."
He suggests that the joint milk branding may eventually be replicated with other local product lines carried by the co-ops. Customers at the three outlets already demonstrate through their purchasing patterns that they're attracted to a co-op-branded item. All three stores continue to carry competitors' milk, but the Vermont Co-op brand is building strong shopper loyalty.
"Sales have been tremendous," says Reiner Winkler, dairy department manager at the Middlebury co-op. He estimates a 20 percent increase in purchases of gallon jugs in the three weeks since Monument Farms milk was relabeled with the Vermont Co-op logo. The Weybridge dairy has been supplying milk to the Middlebury co-op since its opening 30 years ago. The store continues to stock varieties of Monument Farms milk under the dairy's own label in different-size containers.
City Market has also been carrying Monument Farms milk for some time. In fact, the Addison County dairy accounts for about 9000 of the 12,105 gallon-containers of milk that the Burlington co-op has sold so far this year, Nilan reports. Sales are further surging now that the co-op label has been added, he says. Nilan also notes that City Market ranks third in the United States in total sales volume among single-outlet co-ops, surpassed only by The Wedge in Minneapolis and the Sacramento, California, co-op.
Monument Farms milk is a new addition to the offerings of Hunger Mountain in Montpelier, which had previously been beyond the dairy's distribution range.
The central Vermont co-op jumped at the chance to sell Monument Farms, says dairy buyer Bob Messing. He points out that the milk comes from an environmentally conscientious supplier that pastures its cows at least part of the year, spreads only manure as fertilizer, grows its own feed without using genetically engineered seeds, and does not inject its 360 Holsteins with bovine growth hormone.
Access to Hunger Mountain will alone ensure a boost in sales for Monument Farms, predicts co-owner Jon Rooney. He says the dairy has managed to remain financially stable despite the accelerating attrition of locally owned outlets, which have given way to convenience-store chains such as Maplefields. While many mom-and-pop grocery stores would make a point of buying milk from a neighboring supplier, the chains "don't give a hoot where their product comes from," Rooney says.
His initial fears of losing Monument Farms' brand identity have been allayed by its inclusion in the Vermont Co-op Milk label, Rooney says. He welcomes the new business opportunities that the marketing initiative brings. But selling more milk is not his dairy's principal aim, Rooney adds. "We're going into this more to promote the idea of buying local products. We've been pushing the local angle for as long as we've been around."