Maybe it should come as no surprise that Oakhurst Dairy has continued to thrive amid a recession. After all, this is a company that survived the Great Depression. The Portland, Maine, company got its start in the early 1920s making deliveries with two horse-drawn milk wagons. Today the company delivers its products with a fleet of biofuel-powered trucks. It’s one of many changes that have occurred at the dairy processing company that is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.
Oakhurst produces a lot more than fluid milk nowadays, and its marketing area has expanded to include other New England states. Company sales approached $110 million last year.
Oakhurst-branded product lines include fluid milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, butter, ice cream mixes, juices, teas and water.
While the company has seen significant changes, some things remain the same. Oakhurst is still an independent, family-owned business – one that has managed to survive in an industry that includes much larger, corporate competitors.
How has the company managed to survive while so many other small independent dairy processors have fallen by the wayside?
“Maybe we’re stubborn,” Oakhurst co-president John Bennett says with a chuckle.
The company’s unwavering commitment to producing quality products has undoubtedly been a key, Bennett says upon further reflection. It’s a philosophy that started with Bennett’s grandfather, the founder of the company.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do. We have a tremendous amount of loyalty with our employees and customers,” Bennett says. “We’re a smaller company, family-run, family- owned and independent,” he says. “All of those things have continued to work in our favor and that’s kind of what makes us who we are.”
About 70 independent farmers in Maine supply the bulk of the company’s milk. The herd size of the company’s suppliers ranges from as few as 20 to 30 cows to 400 to 500 cows.
Oakhurst values the close working relationship it has with local dairy farmers, Bennett says.
“We view them to be as valuable to us as our employees are,” he says. “We really want to have the same one-on-one open relationship with the dairy producers as we do with our employees.”
Company leaders meet regularly with a producer advisory committee. Oakhurst also has a quality incentive program and honors its top milk producers during an annual awards luncheon.
“We’ve had a quality incentive program for years,” Bennett says. “It’s one that’s beneficial to farmers and us alike. We’ve recently upgraded it and improved the potential for gain for high quality.”
Oakhurst was one of the first dairy processors in the U.S. to take a stand against the use of artificial growth hormones in the mid-1990s.
Consumers welcomed the move, and sales continued to grow.
“I think that has led to consumers feeling that they have a real element of trust with the Oakhurst brand,” says Tom Brigham, Oakhurst’s other co-president.
In 2005, the company completed its largest plant expansion ever, a $10 million project that included a new milk receiving area and a new computerized cold storage facility.
The company has also undertaken certain “green initiatives” in recent years.
In 2006, Oakhurst converted 90 percent of its truck delivery fleet to biodiesel, reducing carbon dioxide emission by an estimated 1,332 tons per year.
The company started with commercially available biofuel but recently switched to a fuel produced from reprocessed cooking oil. A startup company in Portland collects the used oil from local restaurants.
The move to biofuels has resulted in a slight reduction in the company’s transportation fuel costs.
“It’s worked out very positive from the environmental standpoint and has had a positive financial impact,” Brigham says.
The company began installing solar panels at its Maine processing plants in 2008 with the goal of reducing industrial fuel oil consumption.
That initiative may take a little longer than the transportation fuel conversion to pay off but is expected to be a benefit in the long run, company leaders say.
They view the green initiatives as part of the company’s leadership role in the community, an opportunity to show that actions taken to benefit the environment can also help to keep the bottom line healthy.
The company’s donations to charitable causes, mostly benefiting children and the environment, are also well known throughout Maine.
Oakhurst was predominantly a Maine-only company for many years but has expanded its market reach into surrounding states. Today, its products can be found in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
“I think we will continue to focus on growing our penetration into the other New England states outside of Maine,” Brigham says.
At the same time, the company enjoys a strong market position in Maine and wants to continue to hold onto that, he says.
Oakhurst is expanding its product line as well as its marketing territory. The company has broken into the juice market, offering orange juice sourced exclusively from Florida and recently committed to use only American-grown apples in its apple juice.
The company recently launched a new fluid milk product called Oakhurst Plus that’s fortified with Omega-3.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that play a crucial role in brain function and have become popular because they may reduce the risk of heart disease.
“It’s only been on the market for about a year and it’s starting to get some traction,” Bennett says.
“We want to expand our product line, to add to our traditional fluid milk line with more value-added products,” he says.
To mark its 90th anniversary, the company recently launched the Oakhurst Moments Contest. Customers are invited to share old photos, videos or brief written stories via Facebook or other social media.
The company is looking for entries (due by June 30) that might include a favorite product or the memory of home milk delivery.
The grand-prize winner will receive a lifetime supply of Oakhurst milk and $1,000 to give to the charity of their choice.
Oakhurst leaders haven’t had time to think about what they’ll do to celebrate the company’s centennial 10 years from now. Bennett promises it will be something special.
“That will be a big one,” he says. “If 90 years is big, 100 is huge. That’s something to look forward to for sure.” PD
Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.