We Learn How Five Acre Farms and Maple Hill Creamery Are Hard at Work Crafting Premium Dairy Products

The cattle on the summer grassland

Over the past several years, the dairy aisle has been undergoing substantial disruption as various dairy alternative milks, yogurts, creamers and even butter and cheese have appeared, forming a new bloc of substitutes for shoppers eager to experiment. While many are plant-based, other alternatives are competing for space among traditional dairy products, including those that are lactose-free and low/no sugar.

And yet, within our cultural movement away from traditional fluid cow’s milk (demand for which, per dairybusiness.com, is declining by an average of 2 percentage points annually in terms of per capita consumption), there is still noticeable and growing demand for cow’s milk and dairy products with premium distinctions like local, grass-fed, hormone-free and organic.

We’ve been studying food culture’s strong interest in premium foods and beverages for years. For example, in 2015 we described that instilling foods and beverages with premium distinctions entailed “heating up” a category through detailed product design that uses rare production and sourcing methods to:

  • Create a new sensory experience that is complex, rich and very distinct from mass-market equivalents. (Think of the sensory difference between sandwiches made with white bread versus artisanal bread, or conventional fluid milk vs. grass-fed, organic milk).
  • Deploy a new symbolic language to communicate rarity or refinement. This involves adding new symbols of quality into shoppers' lexicons. The new language becomes embedded in their minds (for example “local,” “grass-fed”).

Our exploration of trends in premium has continued from these observations — the following chart (The Premium Growth Factor) elaborates on how, whatever its name (specialty, fancy, gourmet or premium), today’s concept of quality is constantly being redefined by the consumer.

THG Premium Growth Factor Chart

Premium Dairy Today: Local, Grass-Fed, Organic

To learn more about how influential brands today are creating premium products in the dairy space, we interviewed two leading dairy brands in 2021: Five Acre Farms and Maple Hill Creamery — both of which are innovating formidable and popular premium dairy products.

To find out how the pandemic influenced demand for local, premium dairy products and what the future for products marketed with local distinctions might be, we spoke to Dan Horan, Chief Executive Officer of Five Acre Farms, a leading marketer of local, premium dairy, egg and apple products in the New York region.

In this written interview, asked to comment on how quality markers such as pasteurization techniques or breed of cow — like Jersey or Guernsey — are more strongly associated with local or regional dairy and whether or not these types of quality markers might be able to potentially scale up for mainstream demand, Dan responded:

Five Acre Farms Buttermilk

“Absolutely. Higher butterfat and better farming practices are difficult ideas to market, but they make a big difference in how milk tastes. And there is no question that this is scalable throughout the country. Every region has good farms with better practices that translate into better products. Taste and quality are scalable throughout the country. It’s the single greatest opportunity to stop the decline of the American family dairy farm. Smaller operations have to distinguish themselves through quality. Americans (and the world) love community. Family farms say community; they are meaningful contributors to their local economy. High-quality milk is currently poorly marketed in general.“

In a podcast discussion between Hartman Group Vice President of Retainer Services Melissa Abbott and Maple Hill Creamery Director of Marketing Karen Levy, we learned how the organic brand has grown to represent 150 dairy farms while establishing itself at the forefront of premium, sustainable dairy, developing products with organic, grass-fed and regenerative agriculture distinctions and certifications. In 2021 Maple Hill launched a zero-sugar, grass-fed organic milk that caters to a range of consumer dietary needs. Asked to comment on the zero-sugar milk, Levy notes:

Maple Hill milk

“I think we're always working on ways to innovate the dairy aisle. … I think grass-fed organic was an incredibly innovative product, because it was the first 100% grass-fed organic dairy on the market. And here we are now first again with zero-sugar organic milk. So I think I'm just excited to see what comes next for us. And, you know, we're going to be opening up the distribution for zero sugar later this year. And then I think, just on a personal level, I'm an avid coffee drinker, and I'm obsessed with Maple Hill zero-sugar milk in my coffee. So I would love to see Maple Hill milk in coffee shops and go in and have that there as an option. That's just my own personal goal.”

Hartman Insights:

As premium brands, both Five Acre Farms and Maple Hill Creamery demonstrate the power of creating new sensory experiences for consumers that are complex, rich and very distinct from mass-market equivalents.

This is true in terms of Maple Hill’s products with organic distinctions but also in terms of both brands’ products that go beyond organic and explore aspects of premium that link to regenerative agriculture, animal welfare, grass-fed, local and community.

Going forward, while organics enjoy great popularity and while many consumers today interpret the organic seal as signaling the epitome of quality, a growing core of more engaged consumers are starting to demand more as they look for assurances in farming and production cues that go beyond organic. While health and wellness motivations continue to be central drivers of organic purchasing, connections to sustainability have thus been emerging as another key driver — particularly in terms of forward-looking trends, notably under the rubric of local, regenerative agriculture and connections to soil health.

Related to these ideas, our upcoming Sustainability 2021 study examines (among many topics) how consumers differentiate between products, brands and companies when assessing sustainability claims and certifications.

More information on the Sustainability 2021 study is available here.