The Washington Post

Technology ushers locally produced milk, food from the farm to the table

The milkman brings two-and-a-half gallons of South Mountain Creamery’s freshest to Cynthia Terrell’s Takoma Park home each Tuesday, carefully placing the glass bottles on her front porch before dawn and collecting the empty containers from last week’s delivery.

The scene is like a still life from some 1950s Pleasantville. But the Terrell family’s locally sourced lifestyle is made possible by something far more modern.

Middletown, Md.-based South Mountain Creamery delivers dairy, meat, eggs and bread to an average of 7,000 households a week, a figure that has climbed considerably since the owners ran their first delivery to 13 homes in the back of a Ford Explorer more than a decade ago.

The growth has been a logistical undertaking that requires more than just additional farmland, cattle, equipment, trucks and drivers. Underpinning the all-natural process is a gamut of man-made technologies, from robots that milk the cows to software that maps delivery routes.

This technology may provide the best hope of the farm-to-table movement, as it’s called, reaching more people in homes and restaurants around urban areas like Greater Washington.

“It’s incredibly difficult in an economical and efficient way to get the products to market because the logistical systems that have developed favor bigger and more streamlined [operations],” said Gabriella Petrick, a George Mason University professor who studies the evolution of food production and human taste.

“It’s really hard to do and make a living out of.”

From the farm

For Terrell, signing up for South Mountain Creamery’s delivery service was initially a pragmatic decision: With three milk-guzzling kids, lugging three gallons of milk from the grocery store each week got cumbersome.

Those children are now teenagers, and the family refrigerator is stocked with more than just locally produced milk. Terrell has expanded her weekly shipments over the years to include cream, yogurt, eggs, vegetables and treats for the family pooch.

“Unquestionably the convenience of someone bringing me fresh, locally made milk and dairy products makes total sense to me from a culinary perspective, a convenience perspective and an environmental perspective,” Terrell said.

It’s a service that some urban dwellers would be stunned to hear still exists. Of course there are grocery store delivery services, such as Peapod, that shuttle food from big chains. There are occasional farmer’s markets where you can pick fruits and vegetables straight from a merchant’s cart.

But to produce and deliver local products at scale, South Mountain Creamery has had to invest in new technology over the years. In one barn, roughly two dozen cows are lined up, side-by-side in pens, to be milked simultaneously.

Machines systematically tug on their udders, sending warm milk flowing through a series of pipes and into a chamber where it is instantly cooled. The process is far more elaborate than the days of milkmaids with buckets, but it still hasn’t replaced human involvement altogether.

That’s happening in the barn just down the road. A robot uses laser technology to determine whether a cow’s udder is swollen and ready to be drained. If so, the robot goes to work without a human being in sight.

“We like our products and our products do so well ... because we’re start-to-finish. The milk comes from our cows that we raise in our fields,” General Manager Peter Lee said.

“The cooler that’s full [of milk] today will be cleaned out tonight at 12:15. The milk is not 24 hours old. It doesn’t get fresher than that. The eggs are pulled today and they go out tomorrow,” he added.

The practice harkens back to a time in America when the food on the dinner table came from local dairy farms, butcher shops and vegetable gardens. Perishable products weren’t shipped halfway around the world or made available all four seasons of the year.

Petrick at George Mason said those trends have emerged as the costs of shipping and overseas harvesting have come down and consumers demanded year-round access to items such as strawberries, watermelon and butternut squash.

But that’s begun to change. People are more conscious of the environmental footprint their food leaves behind, as well as the sacrifices to health and taste that accompany foods that are heavily processed or genetically engineered for preservation.

“Food has become really important in the United States,” Petrick said. “Culturally, I think there’s a much greater group of people who really care about their food, care about the way it’s made.”

Count Terrell and her family among them. Though she and her husband stretch their budget to afford local food delivery — shipments run $4.95 each, plus the cost of food — it’s an expense she and her husband bear for the benefits.

“As somebody who gardens and really appreciates what tastes good, I really want my kids to know what a strawberry should taste like,” Terrell said. “Not a strawberry that comes from Chile that’s been hybridized so it maintains its flavor for two or three weeks.

“Even though I do, frankly, buy blueberries in the middle of the winter sometimes, I much prefer a lifestyle where we eat what’s in season and look forward to that season all year,” she added.

To the table

The process of bringing products to Terrell’s doorstep and that of thousands of others around the region provides perhaps the best insight into just how critical technology has become for the farm-to-table movement.

South Mountain Creamery sends shipments from its sprawling farm in Middletown to homes in Pennsylvania, the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. The weekly undertaking requires 25 trucks that drive 80 routes.

South Mountain Creamery used to design the routes manually using a combination of Internet services such as Google Maps and basic software. The entire process was imprecise, inefficient and prone to human error, Lee said.

Even today, each driver hits the road with a packet of paper detailing each address and its order. The driver then plugs an address into a GPS, makes his or her way there and drops the contents on the porch. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“The distribution is the hardest piece of it for farm to table, and it really takes someone loading it into trucks and hauling it some place, Petrick said.

“That distribution is the nut of the problem that has yet to be solved. I tell my students I could make millions of dollars if I could figure this out,” she said

Roadnet Technologies, a Towson-based logistics software company, offers one solution. South Mountain Creamery has been using the company’s software since April to automatically generate maps that cut down on delivery time.

“It’s very easy to describe what we do. It’s easy to talk about and understand intellectually, but in terms of solving a problem, it’s a pretty involved process,” chief executive Leonard Kennedy said.

The Roadnet software populates a series of color-coded maps that plot each stop along a driver’s route. If a customer cancels or alters an order for the week, the software automatically adjusts.

Back in an office with bare floorboards and folding tables, South Mountain Creamery’s delivery manager Jorge Sabando can watch each truck from a computer screen. He tracks its speed in real time and detects a problem before a driver even calls.

Since implementing the software in April, Sabando said they’ve used the data to prove one driver wasn’t responsible for an automobile accident and to quickly dispatch a mechanic to another whose truck broke down.

Lee adds that the software has also allowed them to reduce time on the road, gasoline consumption and wear on the fleet. When multiplied across 80 routes, that begins to have real impact, he said.

“All of a sudden it starts to snowball and it starts to be a lot of money,” Lee said.

The next wave of innovation for South Mountain Creamery will be MobileCast, one of Roadnet’s products that puts a tablet in the hand of each driver. It will replace the farm’s paper-based system and allow for real-time information on deliveries or traffic issues.

“The information technology is now not so much inside the four walls of a warehouse or distribution center, but outside as well,” Roadnet’s Kennedy said.

Yet most customers have no idea how intricate the delivery process actually is, Lee said, and they have no reason to if the technology behind it delivers as expected. All that matters is their milk and food ultimately arrive on the porch.

The milk “used to come just at our doorstep. Then they introduced the milk crates. Then you got the insulated containers,” Terrell said. “We’ve been glad for each new invention they come up with.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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