Operating a Century Farm and an 80-year-old family dairy in 2020 doesn’t happen without weathering a few storms and rolling with the punches. Few surprises over the years have hit small businesses harder or more immediately than did safety concerns surrounding COVID-19. When spring arrived and many Missourians were shuttered in their homes amidst uncertain circumstances, Barb Shatto and her son, Matt, were already on a first-name basis with adapting to changing times. They did it the old-fashioned way: home delivery from the milk truck.
“This past year has been troubling for the whole country,” Barb says. “People want to eat at home, want their groceries delivered and want all-local products. We can help support the entire community in a better, stronger way.”
The pandemic wasn’t the first surprise for the Shattos when it came to their Osborn-based business. When the family decided to forego sales to other processors and start bottling and selling their own hormone-free milk directly to stores and consumers in 2003, they weren’t sure if the gamble would pay off. But milk prices and income were low. If something didn’t change, the United Electric Cooperative members would have to sell their herd.
“We only had 80 cows at the time, and we were concerned about having to pour that milk down the drain,” Barb says. “That didn’t happen.”
Far from it. When glass bottles hit shelves in local Price Chopper, Hy-Vee and Meiners markets, word spread. Demand increased to the point that the Shattos had to buy three new herds to meet production. They expanded to make butter and eventually added milk soaps, ice creams, cheeses, eggnog and nondairy drinks to their offerings. Barb’s husband, Leroy, built a country store for visitors. Tours became so popular that a larger store was required, complete with an ice cream bar, gift shop and cheese room.
“It was challenging those first five years,” Barb recalls of the bottling-era’s uncertain beginnings. “But the fact that our community got behind us, that really gave us pride in what we do.”
The milk’s popularity spoke for itself: In 2006, the Shattos won the Missouri Small Business Persons of the Year and first-runner up in the national Small Business Persons of the Year awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Their product even made it to the Oval Office and the desk of then-President George W. Bush. The president’s favorite? Chocolate.
Fast forward to the present day. The accolades and awards received at national and international competitions are innumerable. A broadband internet connection through United Fiber makes conducting business from the farm not only possible but also fast. The herd numbers about 500 black-and-white Holsteins, with a few red-and-whites here and there. Barb credits Herdsman and Farm Manager Matt Schapeler with keeping the dairy’s four-legged employees happy and healthy.
“They’re exceptional cows,” Barb says. “We focus on quality, so we might have five that are high producers instead of 10. It’s a way to save money but still have a good product. We want to meet needs as well as keep our system efficient.”
From the milking stations to the processing room and through the bottling machine to the cooler, the dairy does a brisk business supplying more than 75 grocery stores plus some coffee shops and convenience stores in northwest Missouri. Demand for home delivery of Shatto products as well as eggs, beef, jams and jellies sold by other local producers increased four-fold this spring since it was first implemented in 2017. Matt, who oversees delivery operations, purchased three more trucks just to meet the additional need.
The semitrucks look slightly different than milk wagons of old, and Shatto’s iconic glass bottles, each bearing a legend such as “Family,” “Fresh” or “Yummy,” along with an amusing quip about the product in hand are equally hard to miss. If the visual appeal seems hard to deny, try arguing with your taste buds.
“Milk just tastes better in a glass bottle,” Barb says with a laugh. “It’s colder, it lasts longer and it doesn’t pick up the taste of plastic.”
This year the company added a 12-ounce, single-serving bottle to its product line which includes gallon, half-gallon and pint bottles. Each bottle except the 12-ounce adds a $2 deposit to the purchase price, but customers are willing to pay for the perk of buying a recyclable container. Shatto cleans and reuses them as often as customers resupply the dairy with empties.
“We keep an eye out for ways we can be environmentally friendly,” Barb adds. “We use washcloths between the udders and teats instead of paper towels that go in the landfill.”
In addition to whole, 2%, 1% and skim milk and half-and-half and whole cream, Shatto makes seven flavored types of milk plus five powdered “flavorizers.” Flavors range from the traditional such as strawberry to the adventurous such as cookies and cream. The second most popular flavored variety — after chocolate, of course — may surprise people, until they try it.
“Root Beer was kind of a surprise for us,” Barb laughs. “We took it to a fall festival in Plattsburg and people went crazy for it. Then we started getting calls about when we were making more.”
The Shattos also are known to get creative on holidays — Pumpkin Spice Egg Nog is a bestseller during the fall — and special occasions. Cotton Candy and Red Velvet were bottled when the Royals and Chiefs brought home their respective championships, and Cotton Candy stayed on the permanent roster.
The dairy is open to tours five days a week. Visitors and employees wear masks and group sizes are downsized to make social distancing easier. It’s a far cry from the days of 100-plus kids visiting on a field trip, but it’s all in an effort to keep guests safe and the dairy accessible.
“We’re not going to be a huge conglomerate,” Barb says. “We want to be a family farm where people know us.