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The Middle Man Of Milk

In September 1978 Roger Tanner started a new job in Oneida.

He had spent the last five years managing an oil company in Hamilton. By his own description, he had no background for his new role.

Well,’’ Tanner clarified, “my grandfather had a dairy farm that my brother was running. I had helped out as a kid and worked my way through college working on farms.’’

Sometime in the next couple of months Tanner will retire from that job he went to 42 years ago. He’ll do so after having guided the Oneida-Madison Milk Producers Co-Op through the first months of the pandemic that saw the Oneida facility find places for most of the milk supplied by its farmers.

Tanner was an accounting and business management major in college after graduating from Waterville Central School, so he was not completely out of his realm running a business. He said it was somewhat like the oil business, as both focus on getting the supply to the customers.

“Except with milk,’’ Tanner said, “you can’t just let it sit around until someone calls.’’

The Co-op, which remains in its original building along Route 5 between Sherrill and Oneida Castle, started in 1961. Milk was originally shipped through the railroad adjacent to the building, but then moved to all truck transportation.

All of the farms that are part of the Co-op are in Oneida and Madison counties and within 30 miles of the Co-op headquarters. In turn the milk goes to the two Hood plants within three miles of the facility.

“People say they want to know where things come from, that they want it to be local,’’ Tanner said. “We’re about as local as you can get.’’

When he started the Co-op had about 100 farms. That rose to 150 in the early 1980s, but is back down to about 100. “With 100 members we bring in and ship just as much if not more milk than we did with 150,’’ he said.

All of the farms in the Co-op are family owned. “I have no corporate farms,’’ Tanner said. “The biggest one is four families, all related, all running the same operation.

“Our average farm has less than 100 cows,’’ he said.

Shelf life of milk has grown from eight days to about 16, depending on the needs of the company on the receiving end. One of the Hood plants turns it around as milk to sell in stores, while the other processes it for cottage cheese, sour cream and Greek yogurt.

Over the years, many similar Co-ops were taken in by bigger ones, such as Dairy Farmers of America. By comparison, DFA has almost 9,000 farms as its suppliers.

A couple of years ago, Tanner said, the Oneida-Madison Co-op almost went out of business when a larger Co-op showed interest. Using the idea of locally sourced milk as leverage, Tanner worked out a deal with Hood that benefitted both.

“Since January 2019 pretty much our whole supply goes to Hood,’’ he said. “Before we had quite a lot of out-of-state shipping mainly along the East Coast.’’

Farmers have struggled through low milk prices the last five years; Tanner said the recovery from that was in process when the pandemic hit in mid-March. “We had two very rough months,’’ he said.

All at once about 30 percent of the customer base in schools, restaurants, colleges and offices was lost through coronavirus shutdowns. On the flip side, more milk had to be produced for retail sales.

“A lot of milk in the United States had to be dumped,’’ he said, “because you can’t extend the shelf life to get it packaged. We had a real tough two or three weeks but not as bad as many.’’

Milk runs are done every day bringing six tractor trailer loads of milk to the Co-op. The source of the milk - cows - had no clue about a pandemic causing a downfall in the use of dairy products.

Tanner rented extra refrigerated trailers to add to the storage capacity and that allowed enough roll-over time to eliminate some of the back-up. “It took us about three weeks to be able to move milk,’’ he said. “The retail business picked up. Then the price dropped.’’

Inside the Co-Op is a small store selling locally made dairy products. Although it closed for five weeks until regulations lifted to allow the public to shop, Tanner said it accounts for less than 1 percent of the Co-op’s business.

As New York has reopened under its Phases program, some businesses have returned to acquiring milk and its products. A new source of distribution comes as school districts and food pantries do free give-aways of milk and other dairy products.

While helping people with their grocery bill the give-aways keep milk prices low. “We survived the pandemic and I tell our farmers the milk price will come back in the next couple of months,’’ Tanner said.

At the Co-op nine full-time people run the operations, with a couple of part-time employees. Right before the crisis hit, Tanner came back to work after a hip replacement.

He had given notice that he planned to retire by the summer and the Board of Directors had identified a possible candidate who would train with Tanner before he left. “That all got put on hold,’’ Tanner said. “Not the best time for someone to step in and be new.’’

With the new Covid-19 regulations in place and milk flowing from farm to Hood 100 percent again, Tanner has returned to those plans.

The Board will start interviewing again for someone to take over as manager, but not to fully replace Tanner. “I’m a hands-on guy, like to do it all, I guess,’’ he said by way of explaining why the Board decided some of his duties could be shared among some current employees as well as the new manager.

While he and wife Terry live on the Route 20 former farm run by Terry’s parents, Howard and June Richmond, Tanner’s retirement plans lean toward more golf, more time with the grandkids than raising cows. More time on his boat at their place on Lake Moraine.

“I’ve been busy every day of my life practically so I don’t expect that I’ll just sit around,’’ he said. “When I started here I never thought I’d be retiring during a pandemic. But one thing I’ve learned is cows don’t care what is going on. They provide the milk on schedule no matter what.’’

The full story is in this week's edition of the newspaper. 

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