Arruda Dairy in Tiverton, RI
Tiverton, RI - Back in the day – maybe 20 long years ago --Tiverton had 10 dairy farms, and Arruda was one of them. Begun in 1917 by the parents of one of the current owners, Jean Moniz, they have always operated independently, processing and selling their own milk from their own Holstein herd. Today there are only two dairy farms left, and Arruda is going stronger than ever, relying on their delivery circuit to small stores and a few residential areas, sales from their farm store, and a few restaurants. Based around the old homestead with expanded lands, the work is shared by Jean and her husband Antone, her sons Tony and Joe, and Joe’s wife Anita, plus drivers and some others who lend a hand now and then. They are proud members of both Massachusetts and Rhode Island Farm Bureaus, which Jean credits with doing a remarkable job defending the interests of local farmers from the vagaries of the political world, which is often well-intentioned but not always well-informed. The farm is living testament to the power of pooled resources. “We’re not a big thing,” Jean says, “but we like to think we can survive.”
Their attention to the whole dairying process in detail, from feed to customer, has a lot to do with their survival so far. The history of the farm is a steady stream of evolving land use – renting and buying fields as they are available in order to master the cows’ feed needs with a blend of corn and hay silage. The farms’ fields overflow the state line, and in the past they’ve had 25-mile commutes in peri-urban traffic to reach a corn field! They buy in some grain supplements to round out nutrition to keep the milk its richest and most abundant, but refuse to push their cows too far with the use of RBGH, the growth hormone used by most large-scale conventional dairy farms. They are especially proud of their efforts to protect drinking water flowing past the old dairy barn. Now home to the calves and heifers, the barn’s surrounding lands have been re-worked to filter run-off through filter-strips where grasses and other natural processes clean the water as it works its way back to the water table. State testing has shown that the stream leaves the farm cleaner than it is when it enters. Jean’s son Tony is particularly interested in herd management and breeding, which they also do (or let the bulls do) on the farm, instead of relying on artificial insemination. Tony has done some breeding with a Jersey bull, for example, which has boosted the richness of the milk to well above average.
Milking itself takes place in a parlor way back from the farm store, 18 cows at a time. The milk gets pumped into a chilled milk tank on a truck, which they drive to the processing room, adjacent to the store (if you drop by when they are processing milk, you can catch a glimpse of this through the windows). The raw milk gets pumped into a holding tank, from there through the creamer and pasteurizer, some cream is added back to non-skim varieties, and then it’s bottled and capped. All this happens in a tiny room chock full of gleaming stainless steel equipment, “small but efficient” Tony points out. When the regular Federal inspectors drop by monthly they often marvel at how such a small farm can make it work, and Tony credits their compact efficiency with their ability to survive in a very competitive market. By operating their pasteurizer at night, they pay off-peak rates for electricity, to help offset the skyrocketing costs of milk jugs and fuel. And by being small, they guarantee their customers always get the freshest milk – “Milked today, in the delivery truck tomorrow!” Until a couple years ago, they still used glass bottles because they like the taste of milk from glass so much more, but finally had to give up and go to plastic jugs because too many people didn’t return their milk bottles. They got by for years by buying off the old stock of bottles of their neighbors farms as they went out of business, so that their milk came delivered in a medley of recycled bottles, in brown glass or with pictures of tulips, bearing the names of their former competitors. They had a standing order in at the only factory they could find, in Maine, which was back ordered 3 years for milk bottles. In the end, they gave in, to the chagrin of a few customers.
One group of loyal clients was saved the plastic-bottle fate, however – the weiner shops. Arruda’s coffee milk still comes to them in old stainless steel dispensing milk cans, the old classic cylinder with flared top and two loop handles, and a spigot at the bottom. Tony laughs when telling how insistent those weiner-guys were that the milk stay in those, clearly themselves masters of their own culinary art with an eye to every detail of the New York System dining experience (find Arruda’s coffee milk at Roger’s Hot Dogs and Franks in Fall River, and Coney Island Weiners in Tiverton, to name a few). They seem kind of bemused that coffee milk should have become such a defining product for them, but if that’s what people like… And like it they do: Arruda Farm sent 500 serving-sized bottles to RI Ag Day festivities at the State House this spring, and they were gone part way through the event! They also donate them to local fundraisers like Scouts, where they are just as popular.
Arruda’s three delivery trucks deliver to restaurants and stores in routes that span from Dartmouth to Seekonk. Though some larger markets, like Chaves in Fall River and Lee’s in Westport, carry Arruda milk, they supply quite a few smaller neighborhood markets who can’t afford the big minimum order required by larger companies. To help those little markets out, not to mention broadening their appeal, Arruda has added ice cream from Warwick Ice Cream (which is a family business dating to 1920, Tony points out), Willow Tree chicken salad and pie, and other dairy basics (cottage cheese, butter, margarine) so they can fill their clients’ totally dairy needs. They mix their own orange juice from Indian River concentrate.
These other products are also available for customers who drop in to the farm store, presided over by a member of the family or a family friend, Mary, who helps out when they’re short-handed. The tiny shop, tucked around the corner of the processing building and market by a green awning, sells regular fresh milk (skim, 1%, 2%, whole homogenized), plus flavored milks (coffee, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla). If they are running short, they may skip a flavor or two in a batch -- but Jean says they never skip coffee -- “God forbid, in this area, if you skip coffee milk!” They also sell pints of that too-rare commodity, heavy cream that has only been pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized. Indeed, you can’t keep it two months in the fridge, but isn’t two weeks enough, when it comes with the real milky flavor and slow-pouring thickness of old-fashioned cream?
The vanilla milk was Tony’s idea, he thought people’d love it, and Jean thought he was nuts. It’s turned out to be a consistently good seller – in fact, one guy that works in the emergency room at a Providence hospital comes down weekly to stock up! Most customers are a little closer to home, making it part of their weekly routine to swing past the store to get milk from their own backyards. Jean and Tony speak fondly of their loyal following of nurses from a nearby hospital who drop by after second shift, often with hot coffee to warm them up while they’re working on the evening’s milk processing. “Our community feels it has to support us, because they are tired of seeing farmland disappear,” Jean stated matter-of-factly, although she concedes that some might just be coming because they like the milk so much. Though so many people are watching dairy fat intake, they find whole-milk lovers are among their most adoring fans because of their luscious higher butterfat content (4.5 %, compared to the ordinary 4%).
But having excellent products and a great relationship with your customers and neighbors is only part of the secret. “We’re just a family together,” Jean says of their work. “We don’t have hours we work – if we counted hours, we couldn’t make it. But the family works together.” Tony agreed -- “My brother Joe is here to help me when I need a hand, and I help him all the time. And Mom holds it all together.” Jean brushes that off, insisting everyone does their part, and though each has their specialty, all can fill in for each other. Joe’s wife Anita works in the dairy, too, and though the hours are long and the demands of dairy are ceaseless, doing it together allows flexibility and camaraderie that provides its own rewards for the Moniz family. Perhaps that’s what drew Tony back to the farm after he completed his MA in Biology; “Something back home called be back. There is something about seeing a gallon go out of the machine with your farm’s name on it…” he trailed off with a contented shrug.