Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
At six o’clock on a Wednesday evening, Jonathon Flaum is standing on the porch next to his loading dock in Biltmore Village. Backed up to the dock are a van and a cargo truck, both proudly wearing the azure “Farm to Home Milk” logo.
Flaum himself, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and a dark winter beard, is leaning against the porch railing, talking on his cell phone to a cafe owner in West Asheville who is considering using Farm to Home Milk in their coffee drinks. Flaum explains where his milk comes from and how delicious it is, then offers to bring by a free pint to experiment with.
His manner is calm, friendly, and in no rush at all. He has worked a full eight-hour day of considerable physical labor—driving, lifting, and carrying boxes and bottles all over town. But his demeanor belies only contentment.
As a milkman, Flaum is reviving a livelihood that more or less skipped a generation. He’s connecting North Carolina dairies—and other food producers—to Asheville customers who are eager for local farm-fresh products and enjoy both the convenience and the nostalgia of having Flaum deliver them right to their front porches.
It would be easy to assume, watching Flaum do his work, that he was born into this, or at least into a farming family. But in truth, he’s a city boy with a business background who very deliberately chose this work as a meditation, as a lifestyle—as a way to practice, every day, the teachings of Zen.
“This work fulfills basic needs for me,” he says. “Like how to make a living in a barebones way, how to do something that’s ethical, something with integrity. Something good happens without me even having to think about it.”
Education, Consultation, Meditation
Prior to starting Farm to Home Milk, Flaum had a varied background. Originally from Pomona, New York, 40 minutes north of New York City, he earned two Masters degrees: one in religious studies from Florida State University and another in playwriting from the University of Southern California. In 1999 he moved to Asheville, and in 2001 he founded the WriteMind Institute for Corporate Contemplation, through which he offered writing services and leadership development programs for corporate executives. He would go on to open a physical space for the Institute in 2009, and to offer speechwriting services for business and organizational leaders through another venture, JAF Speechwriting. He has also authored three books on leadership and creativity.
During that decade of work, Flaum began his Zen journey. While he had become acquainted with Zen Buddhism previously during his graduate work, the thing that made him study it in a more serious way was finding out that he was going to become a father, prior to the birth of his son. “I had a sense of awe that I was going to have a child,” he says. “I needed to sit down and contemplate that and Zen was the best way for me to do that.” He found local guidance with Reverend Teijo Munnich at the Zen Center of Asheville and the Great Tree Zen Temple in Alexander, North Carolina. After a decade of consistent practice, he felt it was time to make a true commitment, and he underwent the ceremony to become a Zen monk in April, 2011.
Around this time, Flaum became disillusioned with the work he had been doing. “It wasn’t simple or basic enough,” he says. “There was too much talking, too much writing. I knew I wanted to do something different and simple, but I had no idea what.”
To get some perspective, Flaum, his wife Tami, and their children, Ren and Eve, took an extended trip out west in the summer of 2012. Over a couple months, they camped their way through numerous national parks—Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton—soaking up their natural surroundings, and reconnecting with simple activities like hiking, swimming, and cooking meals. At one point, during a stop in Denver, they learned about a home milk delivery service there, Royal Crest Dairy, which has been in business for over 85 years.
It was an idea that immediately resonated with Flaum. It reminded him of stories he had heard as a child from his grandfather, who grew up in the Bronx. “He would often talk about not having a phone, not having a TV, not having a car, and the whole world being within eight blocks, everybody knowing each other,” he says. As a boy, Flaum was especially fascinated by the fact that his grandfather had grown up without refrigeration or electricity, relying on regular deliveries of milk, ice, and vegetables. “I remember taking walks with him when I was eight and nine and really hanging on those stories,” he recalls. “I was drawn to the warmth of that time, how nice and simple that was.”
At the age of 45, those stories came flooding back to Flaum. Being a milkman seemed like a perfect way to connect through generations, from his grandfather to his own children. He wanted to do work that his own son and daughter (now thirteen and eight years old) could easily understand. It also fit seamlessly with Flaum’s values. “For me the Zen journey is a lot about simplicity and doing one thing at a time and doing it well, about the value of being completely in the moment with what you’re doing. In a way, a lot of that training is perfect for a milkman. It’s one customer at a time, one bottle of milk at a time.”
So after that Denver trip, as simple as that, the decision was made. As Flaum puts it, “I decided, alright, I’ll do that.” A few short months later, he would launch his business.
Building from the Ground Up
While his previous work and his Zen practice may have prepared him in some deep, internal ways for launching Farm to Home Milk, in most other respects he would be the first to tell you that he had no idea what he was doing. “I didn’t know anything about milk, trucks, cuts of meat, bakeries, how food is sourced, how cows are milked, how pasteurization works, or how a quality farm operates,” says Flaum. “I learned by jumping into it, which is the best way.”
He made his first deliveries on January 8th, 2013. His initial offerings included milk, eggs, bread, meat, trout, and salmon. For the full first year, he ran the business as a one man show, doing all of the sourcing, trucking, loading, and deliveries. He was working upwards of 60 hours a week, and describes the time as “incredibly challenging.” But through the start-up craziness, the thought of giving up never crossed his mind. “Part of learning how to work well is to embrace the challenges fully and not give up in the middle,” says Flaum. “It really comes from Zen practice, a simple phrase—‘just continue’—even when it feels the most difficult.”
As he got his operation going, he felt supported by the Asheville community and the farmers and vendors that he was working with. Mike Brown from Farside Farms—Flaum’s egg supplier—offered him refrigerated space to store the milk, free of charge. Other suppliers, including Hickory Nut Gap Meats, Sunburst Trout Farms, and Dough, all took him under their wings as he was starting out.
“To do this job, everyone is interdependent with everyone else,” Flaum says. “I’m just delivering out their hard work.”
Of course, the most important aspect was finding the right milk suppliers. While there used to be dozens of dairy farms in Western North Carolina, today there are only a few. And there are fewer still that do their own bottling. The milk from most small dairies is trucked to large processors that combine it with milk from many other dairies, and then distribute the product across the region. For a small farmer to decide to bottle is a huge investment, so it took some time for Flaum to find the right dairy partners.
[quote float=right]“Since I see some of them every week, I see an evolution in their lives,” he says. “I can only imagine how that will continue as time goes by.”[/quote]Now Farm to Home delivers milk from two dairies. Country Wholesome Creamery, run by an Amish family in Hamptonville, produces non-homogenized creamline milk, which is bottled in biodegradable plastic bottles. Maple View Farm, a 5th-generation farm that produces pasteurized and homogenized milk, is the only dairy in the state that uses glass bottles. Every Monday, the Farm to Home truck makes the trek to both dairies, a full 12-hour day, arriving back in Asheville with 400 to 500 gallons of fresh milk.
While this trip used to be part of Flaum’s week, for his second year in business, he has hired two helpers. Daniel does the dairy route as well as the wholesale deliveries (to 20 local restaurants, cafes, and independent grocery stores), and Gendo loads the truck in the evenings for the next day’s deliveries. But the home deliveries? That’s all Flaum. “I still do all the home deliveries myself,” he says. “I like being part of people’s lives in that very simple way.”
Flaum makes home deliveries on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. On those mornings, his truck having been loaded with most of the items the night before, he stops by Dough on Merrimon Avenue to pick up fresh bread, bagels, and croissants. Then he picks up ice for customers’ dairy boxes and starts his route, making his first delivery around nine in the morning and his last around five or six o’clock.
Flaum’s territory covers Asheville and a few surrounding zip codes—from Weaverville in the north to Hendersonville in the south, east to the border of Swannanoa and as far west as Candler. Even though he’s lived in the area for 15 years, his route constantly introduces him to new corners and neighborhoods because his 150 customers represent such a diverse cross-section of the local population.
“Everyone drinks milk so we deliver to a wide variety of people,” he says. “You realize that Asheville has an amazing diversity within a few minutes’ drive. It’s fascinating to know they’re all getting the same milk, the same quality product. That’s a good, democratic feeling for me. It’s indiscriminate. And it’s a privilege to be able to weave in and out of all of these places.”
The variety of customers is matched by the variety of reasons to buy from Farm to Home. Busy people, especially families with young children, love the convenience of having grocery staples delivered right to their door. Others value the health benefits of consuming fresh, local products. Finally, there are those who enjoy the nostalgia of having a milkman deliver bottles of cream-top milk to an old time dairy box. And, of course, Ashevillians love to support local businesses and farms.
As customers have asked for new products, Flaum has added them to his service. Today the business offers dozens of items, including honey, coffee, beef, seafood, and prepared dishes. Still, milk remains the most popular item, followed by eggs.
Many of Flaum’s customers have been receiving deliveries since the business’ launch, and over a year and a half he’s gotten to know some of them pretty well. Whether it’s chatting about the local news, or taking a tour of a newly purchased home, Flaum enjoys these personal interactions. “Since I see some of them every week, I see an evolution in their lives,” he says. “I can only imagine how that will continue as time goes by.”
The Good Old Days
Farm to Home Milk is part of a revival of the home food delivery culture, which had its American heyday from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s—sandwiched between the rise of cities (where dairy cows tend not to thrive) and the rise of refrigeration and supermarkets.
Last summer, Flaum had the opportunity to meet several retired milkmen and see vintage milk trucks at the 2013 Midwest Milkman’s Reunion & Divco Club Convention in Hendersonville. The collector’s items that Flaum toured had sliding doors on either side but lacked seats because the milkmen stood as they drove. While Flaum delivers to his customers once a week (and some opt for once a month), in the early- to mid-20th century, milkmen delivered every day and stopped at every house. “It was like being a mailman,” says Flaum. “Without refrigeration, it was a necessity.”
In another effort to educate himself about the heritage of milk delivery, Flaum actually reached out to George H.V. Cecil, George Vanderbilt’s grandson and owner and operator of Biltmore Farms—which, before it became a real estate development firm, was one of the largest independent dairies in the Southeast. Flaum recalls their conversation: “He said, ‘Jonathon, I’m concerned for whether you’re going to make it. We got out of the business in 1985 because we couldn’t compete with the grocery stores.’”
But luckily for Flaum, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. “In our time, we’ve realized what not having quality local food does to us on a spiritual and economic level, and we don’t want that for ourselves anymore. So whereas Biltmore Dairy struggled in the 1980s, Farm to Home can survive in 2014 because times have changed again.”
Working in the Moment
Something about the charming powder blue branding on the Farm to Home van makes it easy to envision a whole army of them, zipping along neighborhood streets from coast to coast—or at least across state lines. Flaum says people have encouraged him to expand or franchise his business. It’s tempting to think that this is an idea whose time has come (or returned), and that Flaum could grow his bustling business to his heart’s content.
But his heart is already content.
He says he’s not interested in making a bunch of money, he just wants to make enough to pay his employees well and grow the business organically, bit by bit, so it remains sustainable. Now, many entrepreneurs take this stance (especially when they’re on the record) because they worry that to speak their ambitions aloud makes them sound greedy or cutthroat. But when Flaum says it, it’s coming from such a different place that it seems silly not to take him at his word.
For one thing, Flaum’s past business experience has made him very wary of growth just for growth’s sake. “Because I was a business consultant, I’ve seen so many of the pitfalls of everyone just focusing on growth, growth, growth, and not being able to enjoy the day-to-day of what they have,” he says.
But more importantly, it’s clear that Flaum has finally found a living that aligns with his values and belief system—an alignment that would most likely become disjointed if the business were to scale up.
“In my past work, I’ve done so much rigamarole,” he says, “so many workshops, seminars, talking, written so many thousands of words. I thought that would bring me satisfaction, but this brings me more. It’s nice to do something where no commentary is needed. People just get the milk, and they drink it and enjoy it. It’s clean.”
Even so, Flaum expresses surprise and wonder at the fact that something so simple can truly bring him so much happiness. He says he doesn’t get bored; nor does he feel driven to do more, as he has with past work. And he’s not sure why. But that’s okay.
“It’s kind of miraculous to me,” he says. “When I wake up, I just want to do it again. I want to feel the rhythm of what the day’s gonna bring. It’s nice to wake up without a goal anymore. I just enjoy the ride.”