Milk Truck

Milk Truck: Munroe Dairy

By / Photography By Carole Topalian | December 01, 2009
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Munroe Dairy milk

I am still in my pajamas when I hear the sound of familiar footsteps on my porch. The winter sun is just below the horizon and before I can even find my slippers, I hear the rumble of the truck pulling away from the house.

But there, just aside the front door, placed neatly in the silver milk box, sit four gleaming glass bottles of fresh, cold milk, ready for duty along with any other sundries my family may need to get through the week.  If we are up and at ’em,my family and I get a chance to see our milkman, Carlos Oliviera, who always greets us with a smile and an offer of help to carry in the delivery. His mere offer feels like a throwback to another era and I have to admit even having a milkman sometimes feels like a step back in time. I’ve had friends ask in wonder, “Milkmen still exist?” or state longingly, “I remember having a milkman!”

As nostalgic as a having a milkman may feel, his weekly deliveries make more sense to me than ever before: less time shopping and lugging for a busy household; milk delivered in reusable glass bottles; no bovine growth hormones; no antibiotics; milk that comes from small farms within 40 miles of home; and only three days from udder to fridge.  That is just the short list but despite the advantages, a milkman in Rhode Island is a rare sight these days, at least when you compare to the local dairy scene from the 1950s.Talking with Rob Armstrong, the soft spoken owner of Munroe Dairy, one of Rhode Island’s few remaining milk delivery dairies, and his daughter Lindsay gave me a deeper understanding, not just of the statistics but the complexity behind one of the simplest acts of the kitchen: pouring a glass of milk.  Peering over a 1954 Providence-area yellow pages inside the Munroe Dairy offices, Rob showed me the listing for dairies and delivery services (an estimated 67 delivery companies alone) from all over the state, which took up pages in the book. Today, it is obviously a much different story—there are two.

Despite the precipitous drop-off in small dairy operations, Munroe Dairy, founded in 1881, still delivers a million gallons of milk every year with 9,854 weekly deliveries around Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts.  “Deliverymen like Carlos begin their day as early as 3:30 a.m.,” says Lindsay, 28, who, like her father, has chosen the family business for her career. “Drivers are ready to roll out from here before dawn, five days a week. When a driver gets done with his daily deliveries, usually between 12:30 and 3:00 p.m., he fills his [refrigerated] truck with orders for the following day—and then heads home.” A pre-dawn start and a day of heavy lifting—thank you, Carlos!

While drivers are on their routes, raw milk is being processed daily inside the East Providence HQ that has been home to Munroe since its inception. (You can even see the original rooftop.) Rob Armstrong’s grandfather, a dairy equipment salesman, bought Munroe Dairy in 1937 at the suggestion of widowed Myra Munroe.

The farms that supply the roughly one million gallons of milk a year to Munroe Dairy are members of the Agri-Mark dairy farmer cooperative.  (Agri-Mark merged with the Cabot Dairy Cooperative in the early ’90s.)

Some of the family farms like Valleyside Farm inWoodstock,Murdock Farm in Pomfret and Wood Hill Farm in Hampton are clustered in neighboring towns in the Connecticut countryside, a short hop over the Rhode Island border to the west.

According to Rob and Lindsay, the cows are pastured and eat grass, hay and homegrown feed (corn and hay silage), as opposed to an allsilage diet that is used in large-scale commercial dairy operations. “The farms we buy from are all small, ranging from 250 cows to the even smaller farms with just 50 cows,” says Rob. “We know the farmers, their farms and have been buying from most of them for 20 years and more. They take good care of their animals.”

The tanker truck circles around to the farms, picks up the raw milk just after milking time and drives to East Providence to off-load it into a refrigerated storage silo. Munroe Dairy takes things from there but not before testing the milk directly from the tanker.

Every batch of milk delivered to Munroe is tested for antibiotics, bovine growth hormones and bacteria, all which can be detected in the milk. They even test for smell. If a dairy cow has spent too much of her leisure time chewing on onion grass, it can ruin a whole tanker load, with the pungent smell of onion permeating the milk.

During the following day, raw milk is piped from the silo into the processing room. The clean white-tiled room is filled with large stainless steel tanks where Rube Goldberg contraptions whiz and spin with both milk and bottles. Employees garbed in white jumpsuits, protective hairnets and rubber boots work the machinery that takes the milk through homogenization and pasteurization to bottle. It’s a bit Willy Wonka meets Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

The milk is first pumped into a stainless tank, the homogenizer, with equipment inside that essentially acts like a giant whisk, beating the butterfat into the milk so it won’t separate and rise to the top. The milk (by then 1 percent, whole, etc.) travels in an overhead pipe to the pasteurizer.  “We use a middle-grade temperature [in industry terms, HTST, for high-temperature, short-time] to pasteurize the milk—it protects more of the natural vitamins but kills potentially harmful bacteria.” Traveling through a stack of heated plates, the milk reaches 161° Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.

“With ultra-pasteurization the milk is heated at a higher temperature [280° Fahrenheit]. It provides a much longer shelf life and it loses more of the vitamins—that’s not what we want to do with our milk,” says Lindsay. Munroe milk is not certified organic. Interestingly, much of the nation’s organic milk supply, most often ultra-pasteurized, comes from a relatively small assembly of large farms in Western states like Colorado and California.

Once the milk leaves the pasteurizer the temperature of the milk is rapidly lowered to 34°. Then comes the fun part.

On the backside of the stainless cooling tank another overhead pipe delivers milk to the bottling machine where shiny glass bottles ride, one after another, down a conveyor belt. They swing up and around under a circular contraption with red rubber funnels through which the milk pours into bottles at mesmerizing speed.

The capped bottles slide off the filler back onto another conveyor where each bottle is pushed through an opening in the wall into what’s called the “milk box”—a refrigerated room where the bottles are crated and readied for delivery in Munroe’s splashy, cow-painted trucks.

The government-set price for milk began a steep plunge in 2008 and Rob admits that in his business there is no gain in using milk as a loss-leader, as do the grocery store chains. “We simply can’t afford to give away the milk [and neither can the farmers]. Milk is 60 percent of our volume [the remainder comes from sale of grocery items, many from local purveyors].When you compare prices on half gallon to half  gallon we are competitive with larger brands like Hood but when you compare the quality, there is a big difference. It’s because of the farms and the way we process our milk.”

Heading home with a bottle of Munroe’s chocolate milk, compliments of Lindsay (despite my pathetic protests), having seen the bag of cane sugar—not corn syrup—being added with the chocolate, I know my children aren’t the only ones who will enjoy a cold glassful that afternoon.  What’s more, being able to share with them all that went into their glasses of milk, chocolate aside, gives me reason to hope they will be able to enjoy milk from the milkman, and those small family farms, with their children too. I’m happy to report we each sported an extra satisfactory milk mustache. eR

Rhode Island’s other milk delivery service:
Christiansen’s Dairy Co.,
1729 Smith St., North Providence, 401-231-7138
*Meet them at the Wintertime Market in Pawtucket

Article from Edible Rhody at
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