TECUMSEH The Iwig family has been in the dairy cattle business for seven decades. But a year ago, that tradition was in danger.
"There's not any money in it," Tim Iwig said of traditional dairy industry practices, where farmers sell their product to big companies that process and sell the milk, in plastic and cardboard containers, to grocery stores.
"You don't have any control over your price, and your milk is getting blended with everybody else's milk, and you're not able to get a good price," Iwig said. "You get what you're told the market will pay, and that's not enough. And it fluctuates its way up and its way down. You can never plan."
In October, though, the Iwigs started doing things differently. They decided to keep their own milk and pasteurize and package it in glass bottles reminiscent of the mid-20th century and earlier. They started selling their products straight off the farm and directly to area grocery stores, cutting out the middleman.
Suddenly, the Iwigs are profitable again.
"We can sell that (glass-bottled milk) for a higher price," Iwig said, "because people know they'll get good-tasting milk."
The Iwigs have joined at least two other regional farmers in the glass-bottled milk business - not exactly a trend, but an increasingly visible way for small farms to stay in business and make money.
"It's been unbelievable," said Leroy Shatto, who owns the Shatto Milk Co. that sells to Kansas City-area stores. "It's working."
Will Newhouse and his family near Wellsville were the first in the chute, back in 2001, after getting fed up with low profits from traditional dairy farming.
"It got to be where you weren't making any money," Newhouse said. "You were just barely getting by.
"There wasn't anything more disgusting than working that hard, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and not making any more money than you would if you'd gone down to Dairy Queen."
He bought a giant pasteurizing vat and bottling equipment, and started selling directly to Lawrence-area stores, including the Community Mercantile Co-op and Hy-Vee.
"If you produce it, process it and market it yourself, you have more control over your destiny than if you take what the co-ops are taking," Newhouse said.
Others took notice. The Shattos, in Osborn, Mo., followed the Newhouses into business in June 2003.
"It was either try to figure out some way to make money with these cows, or they were going to go," Leroy Shatto said. "All my other friends in the dairy business got smart and quit."
Iwig was the most recent to join, getting help from an agent who helped him buy 1950s-era bottling equipment that had been abandoned in New York - reflecting the fact that it's been a long time since most people purchased their milk in glass bottles.
"Most of what we have in there is 1950s, 1960s vintage-type equipment," Tim Iwig said.
Despite the success, Kansas State University agricultural economist Allen Featherstone said the do-it-yourself dairies will be a niche market. But those who take advantage of the niche, he said, should do well.
"In some sense, you're capturing more of the consumer dollar by doing the processing on the farm," Featherstone said.
At the Merc, Newhouse glass-bottled milk is one of the grocery store's more popular items.
"They just love it," said Laurell Matthews, an assistant general manager for the store, 901 Iowa. "It's a very popular line for us."
There are several reasons for that. First there's the glass bottle - what Newhouse acknowledged was a "marketing tool" aimed at people who remember fondly a time when deliverymen dropped milk off at your front door. And each of the three farmers said the glass helps keep the milk tastier for longer.
There's also the flavor. Because Newhouse, Shatto and Iwig don't sell to a co-op that blends their milk with other producers' milk, each has a distinctive taste different from the mass-produced milk mostly found in grocery stores.
"They know when they get it it's going to be good, and it's going to keep in the refrigerator," Iwig said.
The result, Shatto said, is that "we got pride back in what we do. I was in the dairy business for 30 years and nobody ever told me how good our product was."
The three farms have, so far, stayed out of each other's way, selling their milk in different, though neighboring, regions.
"There's enough market," Newhouse said, "for everyone who wants to be in the business."