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Tulare’s Top O’ The Morn Farms brings back glass-bottled milk
by Judith Menezes
While customers are sleeping, milkmen from Top O’ The Morn Farms deliver fresh glass-bottled milk to the doorsteps of 235 homes in Tulare, Lemoore and Clovis.
By sunrise, the milk in glass bottles is on the porch, ice cold and ready to drink -- to use with breakfast cereal, a sandwich or wedge of rich chocolate cake.
The family-owned and operated business in rural Tulare County is the only farmstead glass bottling operation in California. This means the cows and creamery are together, resulting in fresher milk that does not leave the farm until delivery. In addition to home deliveries, Top O’ The Morn products are available for purchase at grocery stores, four farmer’s markets and two drive-thru kiosks, one in Tulare and another in Visalia.
Freshness, convenience, and knowing where the milk comes from are key components of the company’s uniqueness and success, said owner Ron Locke, who started the business in 2012.
“We’re just a little fresher, like vine-ripened tomatoes,” he said.
Locke said Top O’ The Morn milk is not consolidated with other milk and has little contact with metal surfaces.
“Farmer’s market customers say this is what I remember milk tasting like as a kid,” he said.
Though Tulare County leads the nation in milk production, Locke said, “You could not buy a glass of milk produced in Tulare” until the family started the glass bottling business. (Rosa Brothers, another glass bottling business in the Central Valley, bottles milk in Tulare. However, their dairy is in Kings County.)
Locke said the company adds new customers and products every month. As part of the home delivery service, Top O’ The Morn sells whole, 2 percent and skim milk; half-and-half; heavy cream; reduced-fat chocolate, strawberry, peanut butter and chocolate, and root beer milk. Eggnog, in classic and pumpkin spice flavors, is sold seasonally. They also sell Mavericks coffee by the pound, Bravo Farms cheese, Plugra butter, Cooksey eggs, Farm Girl jams and jellies, nuts from the Naked Nut, olive oil and vinegars, honey, and pomegranate juice.
There is a strong sense of heritage with the family business. The chief financial officer is Locke’s wife, Evie, who he describes as “the gatekeeper” of the company. Locke and Evie are partners with her parents, Fred and Jennie De Boers. The De Boers have been a dairy family since 1962 and for a short time ran a retail dairy business called Top O’ The Morn in Ontario, California. To honor that family history, Fred De Boer received the first bottle of Top O’ The Morn milk from the Tulare operation.
To help launch the business, the family received a Value Added Producer grant from the USDA, designed to create jobs and teach farmers how to market their own products. Top O’ The Morn employs 50 people between the dairy and the creamery.
The dairy comprises 50 acres with 2,000 Holstein cows milked three times a day. Feed is grown on another 441 acres. Top O’ The Morn sells all its milk to Dairy Farmers of America, a dairy marketing cooperative. Most of it is used for mozzarella cheese. The company buys back 4 percent of the milk, which never leaves the dairy, for its glass bottling operation.
The Lockes value customer feedback and are responsive to customer’s needs. Top O’ The Morn started delivering to 15 homes at the Lemoore Naval Air Station after getting requests from Navy wives whose husbands were deployed.
“It makes you feel good,” Locke said of having customers ask for your product. A Clovis route was added in July after customer requests.
Top O’ The Morn milk is sold at numerous Albertsons in Bakersfield and the Central Coast, in Fresno at R and N Markets and Simonian Farms, and at stores in Exeter, Corcoran, Hanford, Visalia, Tulare and Tehachapi. It’s used at three area restaurants.
The two drive-thru kiosks are also important outlets for the company’s products.
On a mid-summer morning Alison De Groff, with her three young sons in the backseat, drove up to the kiosk on East Prosperity Avenue in Tulare. Clerk Britni Meendering collected the empty bottles from De Groff and handed her new ones filled with fresh milk. The transaction took less than five minutes. De Groff said the milk is convenient and healthy and “and stays much colder in glass bottles.” She also gets milk delivered to her home.
De Groff was one of a steady stream of customers at the kiosk, which also sells coffee, tea, smoothies, cookies and pastries. Meendering, the kiosk clerk, has worked for the Lockes for two years and likes getting to know the customers, many of them regulars. Her bestseller at the kiosk is chocolate milk -- by the cup, the quart and the gallon.
“A lot of people like that it’s straight from home. It’s local,” she said.
A graduate of culinary school, Meendering also makes pastries for the two kiosks, including a pastry of the month. Saturdays are cinnamon roll days. (Cookies at the kiosk are made by Goodies Cookies of Visalia.)
The Lockes have been savvy about doing business in the Internet age. Top O’ the Morn Farms has Instagram and Facebook accounts and customers can order milk on farmfreshmilk.com.
Despite these nods to modern times, the business has a distinctive retro style that is exemplified in a number of ways.
“It’s a piece of the past. It’s so unique,” said Christina Verhoeven, marketing director. “You can taste the difference.”
A 1961 Divco milk delivery truck, purchased on eBay and restored, is used for promotion. A large plastic cow sits on the dashboard. The company’s “Tops in Quality” slogan and distinctive Top O’ the Morn logo are on the side. Top speed? Thirty-five miles per hour. The truck took second place in this year’s Clovis Rodeo Parade in the vintage car category. During the Christmas season, the Lockes sponsor a design contest for elementary school children for a special edition bottle.
All the effort has paid off. At the 2013 World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest in Madison, Wisconsin, Top O’ The Morn milk took first place and third place honors against large producers throughout the country.
By Locke’s estimate, the last company in the Central Valley to deliver milk was Larson’s in Bakersfield, which closed in 1990 but at its peak had 6,000 home delivery customers. Most milk home delivery ceased in the mid-1950s with improved refrigeration, milk cartons (more could be stored on a grocery shelf), the growth of supermarkets and the plastic gallon jug. Milk became a loss leader.
Nowadays, Locke said, there’s new competition: soda, almond milk, soymilk, Gatorade and other beverages. But people still seem to appreciate a cold glass of fresh milk, and his goal is for Top O’ The Morn to be “the milk experts.”
“The most enjoyable thing is when people taste the product, when you get a Facebook message, ‘My baby is going to be raised on Top O’ The Morn milk,’ ” he said.
Judith Menezes is a professor of journalism and adviser to the student newspaper at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.