Michiana's Last Milkman: The story of Scherf Farms
The cracking ice under Pete’s leather boot synchronized with the zip of his jacket. His breath flared up in front of him in a wintery white cloud. It was -15 degrees and the sun was still hours from emerging over the trees that lined the small farm. It was delivery day, and Pete needed to make his rounds before the next snowfall slowed down the roads.
Pete Scherf is the only person who will deliver milk to your doorstep in northern Indiana. While being a milkman is rare enough, he also produces the milk from start to finish.
He and his wife, Rhonda Scherf, bought their small Michigan City farm in 1988. Trees tunnel the road leading up to the small white sign that reads “Scherf Farms.” Rhonda is busy making phone calls from the front office. Pete steps inside and knocks the dirt off his hands with a quick swipe on his jeans.
“Do you like to walk? Let’s go for a walk,” Pete says.
Walking around the farm is a quick tour, with only three buildings and a grassy pasture where the dozen cows (who all have names) and two non-family employees have just the right amount of space to not feel cramped — roughly 100 acres.
“I plant the grass, grow the grass, move the cows, feed the cows, milk the cows, bottle the milk and put it on your doorstep.”
The family planned from the beginning to use the land as a small “gentleman’s farm,” but were unsure of what exactly they would do there. Only after preparing the land for planting did Pete get the idea to make it a dairy farm.
Two creamery workers, Pete, Rhonda and one of his sons work at the farm. He wanted to keep it small, and the sole way to do that was to provide something no one else was — to be the old-time milkman.
Though it means more work, Pete prefers to keep his processing facility within his fences.
“I am adding value to my product,” he said.
The added value and home delivery keep him from having to sell products in a major market, like chain grocery stores. The expansion and disconnect from the process that would require isn’t worth it to him.
For however many cows he milks each day (typically 12 to 18), there is usually double that on the farm, between calves and dry cows. Going into market sales would force him to quadruple the number of animals on the farm and outsource the production. Pete prefers to take every part of the process into his own hands — “from grass to glass,” as he puts it.
If a glass of Scherf Farms milk sits in the fridge next to one from a mass-production creamery, the first noticeable thing is the yellowish color. Most major milk companies separate the fatty cream content from their milk, taking away its natural yellowish color. After the separation, many will re-add the yellow color to any butter products.
Pete believes that the less interference, the better the product. He does, however, perform a low-temperature pasteurization on the milk to remove any bacteria.
The second noticeable thing is the cream line. There is no homogenization (separating the cream) performed on any of Scherf’s products. You can open up a gallon of Scherf’s milk and spoon cream off of the top for a cup of coffee. This kind of separation used to be as common from home-delivery milkman.
Walking down the gravel road that snakes through the farm, the first noticeable sound isn’t the cows. It’s the sheep next to the pasture. Pete lets them follow the herd to eat the tall grass that the cows tend to skip for the small tender shoots.
“They are like kids,” Pete said. “They will eat all the candy and leave the vegetables behind.”
While he does plant grass, he doesn’t use any kind of herbicide or pesticide to help it grow. In a few months, he will plant corn for the cows to eat before it ever grows to height.
Although healthy land is a priority, the cows themselves always have much more watchful eye kept on them. The only time the cows get any kind of antibiotic is when they are sick. Even then, Pete likes to handle it himself with an onsite lab to extensively test to ensure there are no remaining antibiotics before reintroducing them to the herd. Keeping this care in-house and simple is the name of the game.
The cows are milked twice a day and transitioned to various parts of the pasture for the rest. Once they are milked, the creamery is just on the other side of a wall. Pete prides himself on only having his milk sit for a few hours before it is processed into a product.
On most dairy farms, a large semi will come every other day to take the milk to a processing facility where it can sit for a few days before ever being processed. Not at Scherf Farms.
As Pete only delivers on Saturdays, the milk does take some time — although not nearly the time span that mass manufactures do — between milking the cow and you pouring a glass at home. Pete said it’s typically three or four days between when his milk is in the cow and when it is on the table.
With his customer base rapidly growing, Pete has a few thoughts on why the delivery service is still so popular.
“Home delivery customers value it for different reasons,” he said. “Some remember the old-time milk with the cream line, like dad had on the dairy farm. Some find it a convenience because it’s brought to their home. Others are just looking for a local value-added source of good food.”
The biggest part of the farm’s business, about 90 percent, is undoubtedly the home delivery. It’s a grueling process. By 5 a.m., Pete is stacking orders of dairy products into a 20 degree ice box on the back of his Ford pickup truck. He hits the road for a 14-hour day, bringing the process full cycle.
“I plant the grass, grow the grass, move the cows, feed the cows, milk the cows, bottle the milk and put it on your doorstep,” he said.