Warren Shaw has long questioned whether his dairy farm’s home delivery operations were worth it — after all, they only accounted for a small portion of the farm’s annual revenue and he didn’t envision a rising demand for the service in 2020.
The owner of Shaw Farm in Dracut says that a photo of his great-grandfather sitting on a horse-drawn carriage delivering milk was one of the only reasons he kept the old-time tradition going at the 112-year-old, family-owned operation.
Needless to say, Shaw never figured that one day, in the midst of a pandemic, he would need to buy another milk truck.
“For most of my life, there were many times when I thought, ‘Is this the year we are going to get rid of home delivery?’,” Shaw said, about 20 minutes after he closed the deal on his new set of wheels. “I never expected it to explode like it has.”
Since the coronavirus crisis has pushed more consumers away from going into crowded — and sometimes poorly stocked — grocery stores, local dairy farms are seeing huge increases in the demand for their home delivery services. And now, they are scrambling to find more trucks, drivers, and products, to get customers off of growing waitlists.
Warren had to quickly scale up operations as the farm’s e-mail inbox became flooded with new requests. The farm tripled its Merrimack Valley delivery capacity — from one truck and one driver to three trucks and three drivers — and grew from about 300 customers to almost 1,500 in the matter of a few weeks.
Shaw said his waitlist, which now sits at about 300 people, gets new additions every day.
“Consumers have revisited the world of having their local dairy delivered,’” he said. “By and large we are hearing ‘I have always wanted to try this, and this is the perfect time.' ”
At Hornstra Farms in Norwell, about 400 customers have been added across seven delivery routes, but the waitlist is still over 600. Last week the farm’s five drivers delivered milk and other grocery items to over 4,000 homes around the South Shore.
“There are a lot of people waiting because we don’t have another truck and milkman to deliver,” said John Hornstraa fifth-generation milkman. “It stinks that we can’t help all of these people.”
The 20-year-old said drivers typically arrive on the farm around 4 a.m. and sometimes work until 5 p.m. to meet the demand. Hornstra Farms is looking to hire two more drivers.
On top of boosting their workforces, dairy farms are sourcing milk products from other farms to handle the influx of new customers.
"I can only get so much out of the 90 cows in my dairy barn,” Warren said. “And we went from a company that sells 10 cases of eggs a week to one that sells 100 cases a week.”
In addition to selling milk in glass bottles, some dairy farms now offer a wide array of grocery items, from breads and baked goods to frozen meats and pizzas.
Farms are hoping that the new customers won’t disappear as quickly as they came after daily life morphs into a new version of normal.
“I don’t know if people just want it for however long the virus lasts, but hopefully, if they see how good the service is, they will stay with us,” Hornstra said.
Warren is more confident about the long term ― he’s betting that the coronavirus will lead to the resurgence of the milkman.
“Initially, there was concern that the demand will go away when the virus goes away, and if that were the case, it would make no sense to invest in equipment to provide the service,” he said. “But we decided that delivering dairy and groceries to doorsteps has a future, and we are going to invest in it.”
He expects the demand for milk delivery will ride the same trends that have led to the popularity of other grocery delivery services like Instacart and Amazon Fresh. Online grocery sales in the United States totaled about $17.5 billion in 2018 and are expected to nearly double by 2021, according to a study done before the pandemic.
“Home delivery of just about everything is hot,” he said. “This is the time when people decided to include [the milkman].”
Carly Ciarletta, manager of experiential marketing at New England Dairy, said she believes dairy farms will retain a good portion of their new customers, even after fears of going to the grocery store subside.
“Maybe there won’t be these long waitlists, but people might fall in love with that old-fashioned service,” she said.
Home delivery is nothing new for dairy farms who have been doing it for close to or over a century, and milkmen say they can forge something the tech giants can’t: relationships.
“Before the virus, we used to go into people’s houses and put deliveries away for them if they weren’t home,” Hornstra said. “We are so friendly with our customers that they are always excited to see us — a lot of people see their milkman as a friend.”