In Mark Lopez's farmhouse kitchen, there's a sketch made from an old photograph of his grandparents, Elmer and Sarah Stoltzfus. They look lovingly into one another's eyes, smiling as if they'd just shared a joke. They seem confident and wise.
The picture is a poignant reminder of where Lopez finds himself as owner of Wholesome Dairy Farm in the 21st century, and inspiration for where he wants to go. With 80 grass-fed Ayrshire cows, he is breaking even financially by selling raw milk, yogurt and kefir to foodies and health-conscious consumers in the Philadelphia region. For Lopez, it's the only way to survive low milk prices and the persistent decline in fluid milk consumption. As dairies in Pennsylvania struggle, and the number of farms decline, even in Berks County, many have been calling for change and innovation. One answer is the so-called value-added products such as artisan ice cream and ancient-yet-hip fermented dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt.
Lopez, who grew up in the Mennonite faith and attended Lancaster Mennonite High School, has found innovation by looking back.
"There's a lot of people before us that were super smart and they wrote everything down," Lopez said, repeating part of a lecture he's given his daughters. "A lot of the values of 21st century are rolling back a lot of what happened in the 20th century, and (yet) keeping what was good."
Now, with the help of a Pennsylvania Dairy Investment grant, Lopez is building on an old technology to create a new biodegradable product that will take food out of the waste stream. He wants to turn milk into biodegradable plastic. Technically, he wants to develop a milk protein and plant fiber-based packaging composite material that would replace plastic as a dairy foods packaging material.
The promise of an old technology
Last month, Lopez was awarded $123,884 through Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program's second round of grants for research and development. He had to commit $14,800 of his own money to the project. The state awarded $10 million in dairy investment grants in two rounds last year and January. The largest grant, $393,597, went to Enchanted Acres, a milk powder processor doing business as Simpler Way, for a dairy sourcing initiative. All told, Berks County farmers and processors received six grants totaling $680,263.
Lopez, who graduated from University of Pennsylvania and its veterinary school, has teamed up with formulation chemist Hudson VanOrmer, the husband of his niece.
VanOrmer has nine years of experience in materials development. A 2009 graduate of Millersville University, he's been working for four years developing environmentally conscious fiber-based composites with Sustainable Composites LLC in Lancaster. He is named the inventor in two patents on recycled leather composite material developed in part with funding from Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners.
"Dairy foods such as kefir and yogurt are packaged almost exclusively in single use plastic containers," Lopez wrote in the grant application. "Plastic, being a petroleum product, is non-renewable beyond recycling."
He said he wants to reduce dependence on petrochemicals and persistent non biodegradable waste products.
"Perhaps nowhere are these problems more relevant than in single use food packaging," he wrote. "For this project we propose to develop a rigid, single use packaging cup/tub made from a composite of natural fibers and casein polymers that would replace petrochemical polymer (Polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene) currently used for yogurt, butter, etc."
Casein-based plastics are not new. Casein (based on the Latin for cheese) is a protein derived from milk. It's a major component in cheese and is used as a food additive as a stabilizer. It can also be found in certain paints and glues.
VanOrmer said an early plastic was a casein product known as milk stone or Galalith. Antiques lovers may be familiar with old-fashioned jewelry know as Bakelite, which is similar and uses a milk-derived casein polymer. Galalith was invented in Germany in 1893 by combining milk with formaldehyde. Galalith was widely used until World War II, when the increased demand for food and the advent of petroleum-based polymers caused the world to lose interest in milk-based plastics.
Casein is already being used for food packaging films (think plastic wrap). The films are food safe, biodegradable, provide oxygen barrier and in some cases are even edible. But there hasn't been much work in developing rigid packaging container from casein, according to VanOrmer.
"A rigid container would remove much of the need to add plasticizers and humectants to the formulation that film developers are encountering," Lopez wrote in his grant application.
Adding fiber to a composite would make the packaging stronger and provide better insulation. Using inexpensive plant fibers would save production costs.
VanOrmer said the plan is to first identify suitable natural fiber for use in the formulation, and then to develop a process for molding the composite into a desire shape. The second phase represents a path to scaling up for production.
"You can make anything once in a lab," VanOrmer said. "The challenge is to make 100, repeatedly, reliably and efficiently."
Lopez and VanOrmer said social, environmental and economic pressures are building a need for a new packaging material.
An expert on plastic in the environment agreed.
"Today's plastics were never designed to be mass produced," said Rolf Halden, an Arizona State University engineering professor and author of the forthcoming book, "Environment."
"Polypropylene and polystyrene are supposedly recyclable. In actuality, less than 1% of plastics are recovered and recycled. It's a scam and we are buying into it."
Halden said fossil fuel-based plastic is an eternal pollutant, practically inescapable in food. Halden said Lopez's research and development project are commendable in that they aim to replace plastic pollution and instead use food and plant waste for creating packaging, thereby turning agricultural waste into a resource.
"In a way, it traces back to the roots of plastics," Halden said, referring to Galalith. Lopez and VanOrmer's new material, should they succeed, is not likely to be feasible to replace all plastic, Halden said, but as a niche packaging for yogurt, it's a natural fit.
Elmer and Sarah
Meanwhile, Lopez has also adopted new branding for his dairy products made from milk of grass-fed cows. The brand, Elmer & Sarah's, depicts a young Elmer and Sarah posed as they were in the old photograph. Elmer leans forward, his hands folded in a moment of rest, as Sarah looks to him fondly. Part of the Dairy Investment grant will help him produce more yogurt, kefir and other dairy products, while capitalizing on the fresh wholesomeness.
The Stoltzfus farm on Camp Road has come a long way since he returned in 2007 from Texas, where he had worked as a large animal vet. It had fallen into disrepair, and the land had been rented to another farmer.
"We had to rebuild it from scratch," Lopez said.
Lopez and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased the farm from his uncle, Leonard G. Stoltzfus and his wife, Mary K., in 2013.
Lopez is ready for the next step and wants to bring others along with him. He said he is seeking investors for the research and development project, which will likely need more money than the state grant to reach fruition.
"Right now we are looking for the right kind of investor," Lopez said.