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Stainless-steel machinery and plastic milk crates fill the bottling room. A pasteurizer sits in the back corner. A man carries a sack of sugar on his shoulder to the section of the floor where chocolate, strawberry and other flavors of milk are created. The ice-cream maker looks not much bigger than the yogurt machine at a smoothie store.
A worker flips a switch. Milk begins to pour into half-gallon jugs that travel on a mechanized line. Shatto pulls out a bottle to let his guests feel how cold it is to the touch. Skim milk, Shatto explains, is the most popular white variety "because of all the healthy people in town."
His tour personality is that of a country fellow with just enough common sense to get by. The dairy, he says, is a way to support the cows. "My wife still hopes I can make some money before I die."
The harsh math of modern agriculture has forced a lot of dairy farmers to find new lines of work. Their numbers have dwindled by 40 percent in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "All my friends who used to milk got smart and quit," Shatto says.
Shatto, who is 54, wasn't ready to give up his cows. So he applied for a grant to study ways to keep dairies in Missouri. He spent time in supermarkets to learn more about consumer preferences. He visited small dairies in the East that processed their own milk.
Shatto's research taught him that he needed to be different. It wasn't enough that he didn't use growth hormones; plenty of dairy farmers don't shoot up their cows. No, Shatto needed something else if he was going to get into stores and compete with Belfonte and Roberts Dairy, the two big processors in Kansas City. (Omaha-based Roberts employs more than 700 people and generates annual sales of more than $250 million.)
He found his answer in the past. Shatto decided to package his milk in glass.
The glass serves many purposes: It's nostalgic. (Home delivery went away in the 1960s.) It keeps the milk colder than plastic and doesn't impart any taste. It also looks great on the shelf. "The glass, it just jumps out at you," Shatto says.
Grocers agreed. When Shatto Milk Company was still an idea, Shatto visited supermarkets toting a glass bottle filled with sugar. Managers' eyes widened when they saw it. He went to seven stores and got a positive response at each.
He buys the bottles from a company in Canada. He says they cost more than the $1.50 deposit he charges.
When the bottles return to the farm, they are washed in a machine built in 1951. Shatto bought the bottle washer from a retired farmer in New York. It cleans and sanitizes 9,000 bottles a day.
During the bottle-washer portion of the tour, Shatto talks about visiting the White House in 2006, the year he was named Missouri Small Business Person of the Year. (He had received loans backed by the Small Business Administration.) Shatto lugged chocolate milk in a cooler on the plane to Washington, D.C. He later received a photo of George W. Bush enjoying a glass in the Oval Office.
The tour group returns to the store for free samples. "Wait till you see the cow this comes from," Shatto says as he passes around a tray of root-beer milk. (The root-beer variety has surpassed strawberry in sales among flavored milks.) Next are wooden-spoon servings of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, which recently became available in stores.