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The Milkman Makes A Comeback As Virus Keeps People Away From Grocery Stores

Courtesy of Wade's Dairy
Doug Wade in the office at Wade's Dairy in Bridgeport, Conn. His great-grandfather started the business in the late 1800s.

Wade’s Dairy in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has been around for nearly 130 years. Douglas Wade’s great-grandfather started the company.

“I imagine some neighbor’s cow died, and he said I can give you milk,” Wade says. “And he just went around on a horse and buggy with a can of milk and ladled off milk for the families for their breakfast and their lunch.”

Wade’s Dairy had about 3,000 door-to-door customers in its heyday. But they had far fewer when it ceased milk delivery in the early ’90s.”

We had three old timers, guys that gave us their blood, sweat and tears,” Wade says. “And we stayed in home delivery way beyond where it was profitable just to let these gentlemen retire with some dignity, you know? And I did not ever see this coming back, but I had no premonitions about an epidemic.”

The company serves about a hundred school districts. Then Connecticut’s schools closed, and Wade says they lost about half their business in one day. But cows keep giving milk. So they had to find a new way to sell it. Wade’s son suggested door-to-door. They put it out on social media and more than a hundred new customers signed up.

“We sent two fellas out on the route this morning. It really only needs one, but we wanted to make sure everything went without a hitch. We made our first 21 deliveries this morning. And we’re back in the home delivery business.”

Milk prices were down before COVID-19. Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt says the region now faces a projected 40% price drop.

“And that, as you can imagine, is catastrophic,” Hurlburt says. “Dairy farmers have animals to feed, they have labor costs, they have high energy costs. They can’t adjust the cost of production to meet the new price.”

Hurlburt says state officials and lawmakers are pushing the USDA for more help. But Connecticut is a state full of small, often family-owned dairies – up against states with huge factory farms.

“I spoke with a dairy farmer yesterday who will lose $250,000 next month,” Hurlburt says. “And he’s not even the largest farm in the state. This is not a megafarm that you read about out in the Midwest or Southwest. This is your average multi-generational Connecticut farmer.”

In a lot of industries, lower prices mean more sales. Don Tuller, president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, says that’s not true of milk.

“If shirts go on sale, you might buy a bunch of ’em,” Tuller says. “If the price of milk goes down 50 cents or a dollar, you’re probably not going to buy more milk. And the supermarkets basically aren’t dropping the price because they can’t even keep it in the stores.”

Several other dairies in Connecticut still offer delivery. And at least one other – Mansfield-based Mountain Dairy -- has resumed home delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuller says it works as long as customers would rather avoid the grocery store.

“It’s a silver lining,” he says. “But, you know, our concern’s gonna be once we get back to normal, how many of those customers will go back to their old buying habits?”

Douglas Wade, president of Wade’s Dairy, says he can’t predict the future.

“It might get much, much bigger than what we’re prepared to handle in our current circumstances,” he says. “Will it have legs and go beyond six months, a year, two year period?”

Wade says only time will tell.

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Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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