Sure, history repeats itself, though not always as literally as it does these days. With the Baby Boomers growing older and pining for yesteryear, the past is suddenly the present. Some new cars - like the PT Cruiser and the T-Bird - look like old cars. Some bicycles look like bicycles again, instead of geometric origami with knobby tires.
Following that trend, the owners of a small Searcy County dairy hope they can put a piece of the past on your breakfast table: milk in a glass bottle, coming soon to a refrigerator near you.
Open since March, Mountain Springs Creamery in Marshall is the smallest of small operators. Distributed within an 80-mile radius, Mountain Springs milk comes in all the varieties that moo-juice in plastic does - whole, skim, 2 percent, chocolate, and even an old-timey cream-topped milk that they have a permit from the state to produce. Call their number, and you get the girl who runs the attached deli, where they sell ice cream and cheeses. Ask for the owner, Mark Halsted, and you can hear the faint clink of bottles on the production line while you wait for him to tromp from the milking parlor to the phone.
When you get him, Halsted sounds like a farmer should, with a cool drawl and a fondness for long, thinking pauses. Though he's only 41, he's been milking cows now for three-quarters of his life - a fourth-generation owner of his family farm. Where there were around 1,200 small dairies in Arkansas when he started working in the 1970s, now there are fewer than 200. The rest, he said, are going quickly. Though production and sales have risen steadily since Mountain Springs capped its first cold one four months ago, it looked for awhile like Halsted's own legacy might be the next to go.
"We're at the verge of losing [our farm] because the dairy industry as a whole is moving west to large dairies," he said. "It's not uncommon for dairies out west to have [10,000] to 35,000 cows milked in one barn. Dairies in Arkansas, I'm not sure of the average but it's somewhere around 100 cows now."
The trend toward Big Milk has caused some struggling dairy owners like Halsted to think small - and retro. Mountain Springs is one of a handful of dairies selling local milk in glass bottles, an idea which is so new that producers have to have their milk bottles shipped in from Canada or Mexico.
Still, beyond nostalgia and sticking up for the little guy, why glass? "Milk tastes better in glass bottles," said Halsted. "You don't get the plastic taste from the milk. The milk stays colder." Also, he said, with their milk in deposit bottles that are returned to the store, washed and re-used numerous times (not to mention totally recyclable once they get chipped or broken), only the small plastic cap ends up in the landfill. Too, Halsted said all his milk comes from grass-fed, hormone-free cows, and goes from udder to bottle in a flash.
"Our little saying is, we go from grass to glass in 24 hours," he said "That makes a lot of difference. That's something the big dairies such as the ones in Little Rock - they can out produce us in quantity - but that's something they can't do. We've got the cows right here." Prices, too, are comparable to milk in plastic jugs, once you get the $1.50 bottle deposit out of the way. The Harvest Foods store in Clinton, for example, sells Mountain Springs whole milk for $2.39 per half-gallon ($3.89 if you forgot your empties), which is around 6 cents higher than a similar half-gallon in plastic.
It's a little bit extra that people seem to be willing to pay. Word-of-mouth has slowly spread, and Halsted's milk has gained a fan base. Regulars from Little Rock and Fayetteville, ice chests in tow, make the trip to Marshall every few weeks to buy his freshest-possible product in quantity for themselves and friends. "Our milk is fresh-pasteurized, but it has a lot different taste," he said. "It tastes like milk is supposed to taste. Once people try it, they usually come back for more."
Soon, Halsted hopes that fans in Little Rock won't have so far to drive. Though the closest place Little Rockians can lay hands on Mountain Springs milk right now is in Greenbrier, plans call for eventual expansion into the Little Rock market. That will mean head-to-head competition with the big boys, but Halsted hopes that once people get a drink of his milk, they'll know which one to buy.
"You can taste the freshness," he said. "Now we can't sit there and run 30 or 40 truckloads of milk a day like they can. That's not what we're trying to do. We're just trying to fill a niche market, for people who know what milk used to taste like and appreciate that."
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