The stats say yes, and small dairy farmers in Texas are betting on it. But alternative, plant-based milk isn’t going away anytime soon.
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Earlier this year, a slate of articles from national publications proclaimed that “milk” made with sweet potatoes was the next big thing in alternative dairy. It doesn’t seem like it’s caught on in the way oat milk has, but recent stats show that real milk—the kind that comes from cows—might be making a comeback in a culture that seemed to be leaving it behind.

In 2020, for the first time in decades, milk sales held steady. In total, Americans sipped just under seventeen gallons of milk per person, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the same amount as in 2019.

In 1975, the first year the USDA started tracking consumers’ dairy habits, Americans drank almost thirty gallons of milk per year per person, nearly double what we drink today. Though the government’s official dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume a mind-boggling three cups of dairy per day, 90 percent of the U.S. population does not meet that goal, according to the USDA’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The decline is a result of factors such as heightened environmental awareness; the prevalence of plant-based alternative milks, such as almond, soy, and oat; and the wellness industry hype machine.

This decline started to affect dairies in Texas, which is the nation’s fifth-largest producer of milk. The months before the start of the coronavirus pandemic were particularly brutal. Dallas-based Dean Foods, then the nation’s largest milk supplier, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2019. Two months later, Borden Dairy also filed for bankruptcy, roping the Dallas company and its famous mascot, Elsie, into an unknown future.

While the USDA’s per capita dairy consumption numbers for 2021 won’t be released until September, some producers, like Terrell-based 1836 Farms, believe those bankruptcies were natural casualties of an industry in flux and 2020 was the start of a new era in how Americans consume dairy. And this era is paying more attention to aesthetics, taste, and ethics.

1836 Farms sells organic milk in old-fashioned glass containers, inspired by the heyday of milk delivery. It currently sources from one family farm, and the company says it pays particular attention to how the cows are treated. (“Happy cows make good milk,” says general manager Andres Santano.) The company offers seasonal flavors, such as orange or blueberry, and the glass bottles can be recycled or returned to 1836 Farms for cash back or credit. The milks have a shorter shelf life because of a “much gentler” pasteurization method.

“We’re putting a product out there that reminds the consumer what milk tasted like when you were a child,” Santano says. “It pulls on that nostalgia, and then you add in the glass bottle and that even goes further into it. It gives the product a freshness.”

Santano says the dairy also wants to cultivate a long-lasting workforce. If the pandemic ripped back the veil over how the food and manufacturing industries treated workers, supporting companies that care for their employees is now an important consideration for certain consumers. “We’re making it as homey as we can make it, as family-friendly as we can make it, as comfortable and as much fun,” Santano adds.

Even with pretty packaging and funky flavors, milk still faces tough competition from plant-based alternatives. Along with a shift in personal preferences, more Americans are looking to dairy-free options for wellness reasons. When Erin Asaad decided to eliminate dairy from her diet, the Austin-based entrepreneur began concocting coconut milk–based yogurt recipes in her kitchen. She found one she liked, and after testing it out on friends and family, began selling it at a local farmers’ market and developed a cult following. Today, Culina yogurt is available nationwide in retailers like Whole Foods Market.

“A lot of people are seeking solutions to help them have a healthier body and healthier minds,” Asaad says. “People are switching to a flexitarian diet and choosing to consume less animal products. They’re not one hundred percent vegans, they’re the people who are like me [and who] have health issues.”

As the founder and owner of the Dallas-based White Rock Coffee, Nancy Baker has seen this change firsthand. When White Rock opened its first coffee shop nearly twenty years ago, Baker included a soy milk option.

“It truly was revolutionary that there was a nondairy alternative at a coffeehouse,” Baker recalls. “Consumers had not been used to being able to successfully order a drink that they would not get sick off of.”

Today, she guesses there is a sixty-forty split, with the majority of her customers selecting traditional dairy for their coffee. (She’s noticed that White Rock Coffee drive-through users are even more likely to pick dairy milk. Baker attributes this to consumers believing baristas will make their drink faster with cow’s milk as opposed to a plant-based alternative.)

But if the past twenty years have taught Baker anything, it’s that consumer tastes change. Wellness trends are fickle and, as New York magazine writer Emily Sundberg noted in her 2021 article “Whole Milk Mounts Its Triumphant Comeback,” “maybe milk, of all things, is an antidote to languishing, or at least a way to remember that we can all do a little less and we’ll be fine.”

From her vantage point, Baker also believes milk is making a comeback, albeit for a less nostalgic reason: inflation. “I would think that with these economic times, that people may be going back to dairy . . . for every drink, it’s, you know, seventy-five cents, a dollar up-charge for an alternative milk,” Baker says, adding, “You’re gonna think twice about spending money every single day.”

1836 Farms is also betting on milk’s resurgence, though Santano says the mega-producers of the past may not come back with it. During his twenty-year career in the food industry, the Texas A&M grad has worked for Tyson Foods and Conagra. In 2018, he began working for Dean Foods, where he was the senior supply chain director for ice cream before becoming a casualty of the company’s 2019 bankruptcy. Though he jokes he “aged three years in six months” there, he now views Dean Foods’ implosion as a welcome change to the market.

“At that time there was too much capacity in the system, when [Dean Foods and Borden] filed for bankruptcy,” Santano says. “That capacity has been shed from the industry and you’re seeing kind of what’s happening now. The shelf space opened up a lot for these alternatives; it also opened up the opportunity for some of us to come in there.”

As for the future, 1836 Farms is working to create its next batch of products, including organic creamers and cold brew coffee. Also on the agenda? Oat milk, of course.

Farmer organisations have called the proposed changes to the code of welfare for dairy cattle as big, complex and overly prescriptive.

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