- Hart Dairy, the largest single-source of 100% free-range, grass-fed milk in North America just closed a $10 million seed funding round led by Sydney-based Alium Capital, according to a company press release.
- The Georgia-based dairy will use the capital to expand their product offerings and increase production capabilities, which is currently based on 3,500 grass-fed cows. It also plans to continue innovating around its animal welfare practices.
- In addition to being grass-fed and free range, the Hart Dairy recently received the Certified Humane designation from Humane Farm Animal Care. It is the first pasteurized dairy cow operation in America to be awarded this stringent, globally-recognized animal welfare standard.
Despite 2018 being the worst year-over-year growth in domestic milk production since 2013, according to a new report from Rabobank, Hart Dairy managed to generate a spark of confidence in the souring milk industry.
The company has latched onto the popular "free from” labeling movement and applied it to their animal husbandry practices that take place on 4,000 acres of Georgian pasture land. This influx of funding is intended to expand their production, and by logical extrapolation, their distribution. At the same time, it would be a fair question to ask, who's buying?
Dairy milk sales have fallen 15% since 2012, drawing in an estimated $16.12 billion last year, according to a 2018 report from Mintel. Despite that decline, however, there has been an upward trend in flavored and whole milk. Flavored milk sales increased 18% since 2012, reaching $1.74 billion in 2017, an 18%, making it the fastest growing segment in the dairy milk category. Whole milk sales have increased 8% since 2012 and were estimated to reach $5.36 billion in 2017.
Hart Dairy only has four products, two of which fall into these fast-growth categories amid a shrinking industry. To differentiate its product from the masses and attract consumers, Hart Dairy is touting its status as the only American dairy with a Certified Humane designation from Humane Farm Animal Care. Although a designation indicating animal welfare, earning this seal may not be as prestigious as consumers think.
The federal government does not regulate the use of words like "humane" or "free range." The USDA does not send out inspectors to test those claims made by manufacturers, and as such, issues can arise when production expands to mega proportions.
Although these labels are intended to improve animal conditions, evidence points to pitfalls. The New York Times reported that about 200 farmers control nearly all of the 300 million egg-laying hens in the country. At such a scale, even if cage-free criteria are met, the birds are not pasture-raising due to issues with feasibility. The result is that an industrial system is installed that technically lets birds walk around, but may not necessarily be better for its health.
Still, labels matter. An online survey from Label Insight showed that customers are influenced by package claims, including "antibiotic free," "free range" and "grass-fed," and they are willing to pay more to get them.
Although the battle for free-range milk has not been at the forefront of American discussions like it has been in the U.K. where supermarket chain Asda began carrying Pasture Promise — a free-range milk that is part of the Free Range Dairy Network — the push for free-range eggs, beef and pork is a good indicator of what is in store for the milk industry. Other sectors have proven that consumers care when animals are treated well and are willing to invest financially in the future of companies who believe similarly.