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Wednesday, April 18, 2007 02:58 pm

A better glass of milk

Quality keeps small dairies competitive with factory farms

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Untitled Document Whatever you may think of Jim Oberweis’ politics, one thing is for sure: In any taste contest against ordinary store-bought milk, Oberweis Dairy milk wins in a landslide. In 1915 Peter Oberweis began selling extra milk from his farm’s cows in Aurora. By 1927 he was in the dairy business full-time. Back then, the lack of refrigeration meant milk was delivered daily, first in horse-drawn wagons, then in Model Ts. With the advent of more reliable refrigeration and gas rationing in World War II, milk deliveries decreased to once or twice a week. Of course, in those days milk and other highly perishable dairy products came from local dairies that used local farmers. In Springfield there were at least three: Producer’s (sold to Prairie Farms), Sangamon (my mother still longingly remembers Sangamon’s buttermilk), and Homeier’s (when I was young, Homeier’s chocolate-chip ice cream was my favorite). By the ’60s, however, most local dairies were going out of business, unable to compete with the lower prices of supermarket milk produced on new factory farms. Home milk delivery was becoming as obsolete as physician house calls.
A few small dairies managed to hang on, though none here. Bloomington’s Laesch Dairy began a short-lived home-delivery service in Springfield in the 1990s, largely because it’d been awarded a contract to supply the District 186 schools. (Sadly, the contract was canceled because officials felt that dealing with glass bottles was too much bother, giving Springfield schoolchildren a reverse lesson in the benefits of recycling). Once the contract was canceled, Laesch didn’t have enough home-delivery business in Springfield to continue the service. The small dairies that managed to stay in business did so because the quality of their products was measurably better than that of the factory-farm stuff. It was still tough going, however, even for the Oberweis Dairy, which had the advantage of a large Chicago-area market. In 1986, Jim Oberweis and his wife, Elaine (who together had a successful financial services business), purchased the dairy from his brother, John. The family refers to the following period as “the disastrous years.” Though Jim was (and remains) chairman of the board, insiders say that Elaine is the one who grabbed the steering wheel, turning the company around at a time when many thought that Oberweis would soon be delivering its last bottles of milk. She concentrated on the home-delivery side of the business and emphasized the quality of Oberweis’ products, opening dairy stores and putting products into other retail markets. The home-delivery service expanded from 3,500 to 35,000 customers and began offering a much wider range of products (in addition to dairy products, Oberweis home delivery now includes many other items, such as juice, bacon, sausage, eggs, pizza, quiches, bagels, and other breadstuffs). Oberweis isn’t really a local dairy anymore, but it is a regional dairy and, as far as company president Bob Renaut (who took over leadership of the company in 1999, when Elaine Oberweis retired) is aware, the only Illinois dairy offering home delivery. Though the largest part of Oberweis’ business is still in Illinois, Oberweis dairy products can also be found in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Missouri (in the St. Louis area). In 1998 Oberweis acquired Laesch Dairy and soon began offering home-delivery service in Bloomington-Normal and Springfield, where they now have more than 1,400 home-delivery customers. Why does Oberweis milk taste so much better? There are several reasons. First, the glass bottles keep the milk colder and don’t impart any of the off taste that plastic or waxed cardboard can give. Oberweis also requires the local farmers who supply the raw milk to ensure that the milk has a low count of somatic cells. Some somatic cells (essentially dead cells) are present in all milk, but a high count is an indication that the cow is sick and also affects flavor. Illinois law allows as many as 750,000 SCCs per milliliter; Oberweis’ maximum is 250,000 SCCs per milliliter, and most of the dairy’s farmers report levels between 100,000 and 150,000 SCCs per milliliter. Another important factor is pasteurization. Whenever milk is heated, the taste is affected. Pasteurization can be done at very high temperatures for a very short time or at lower temperatures for a longer time, on a sliding scale. The higher temperatures destroy flavor enzymes, as well as others that aid digestibility (one reason for the dramatic increase in the incidence of lactose intolerance) and gives a “cooked” taste to the milk, but is used by virtually all factory dairies because it’s cheaper and extends shelf life. The “ultrapasteurization” touted on the labels of many dairy products is actually an indication of lower quality; most food professionals won’t use such products. I’ve been an Oberweis customer for years. It’s hard to believe that the skim milk is really fat-free: It’s refreshing, light, and flavorful, without that thin bluish cast that makes farm factory skim milk unappealing. I use the 2 percent milk in coffee and occasionally whole milk for cooking. The chocolate milk, even though it’s made with 2 percent milk, is decadently rich. All of Oberweis’ other products are of exceptionally high quality as well. Oberweis milk (and milk products) don’t just taste better; they’re also better for you, largely because of what’s not in them. The local farmers who supply Oberweis must sign a pledge to not use preventive antibiotics, which are routinely given to animals on factory farms (including cows, pigs, and chickens) because their living conditions are so crowded and unsanitary. Factory farms are the biggest users of antibiotics in the United States, and many scientists and health officials believe that the amount of antibiotics that consumers ingest in products from factory farm animals is a major factor in the development of untreatable “superbugs.” On an Oberweis farm, a sick cow may be treated with antibiotics, but her milk cannot be used until she is well and her milk tests antibiotic-free. Farmers also pledge to treat their animals humanely and to not use recombinant bovine growth hormone, an artificial hormone that increases milk production. The FDA and USDA approved the controversial drug in 1993, but it’s banned in every other industrialized nation because of its effects on bovine and human health. Cows given rBGH are at higher risk for some 20 ailments, including mastitis and other udder infections. It also stimulates the production of insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1, found in both cows and humans, in whom it has been linked to breast and prostate cancer. Milk products that taste better and are better for you are what Oberweis is all about. Their motto says it all: “Simply the Best.”

Oberweis Dairy can be contacted to set up home delivery at www.oberweisdairy.com or by calling 888-645-5868. The dairy’s milk can also be purchased at Cub Food Stores.  
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at
realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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