Dairy Farms and the New Agritourism

Eric Paulson, a self-proclaimed “key lime guy,” takes his job seriously. “I’m professionally obligated to eat ice cream if I see it,” he says. As executive director of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, Paulson’s tasted plenty of flavors you won’t find in grocery stores. Think Salty Monkey, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Olive Oil, Squid Ink—even Tomato.

Ice cream makes a compelling case for a dairy farm visit, he notes. At Homestead Creamery, just outside of Rocky Mount in Wirtz, where the ice cream is churned on-site, it’s a question of Lemon Crunch or Espresso Chocolate Chip. At Richlands Dairy, in Blackstone, the decision comes down to Banana Pudding or Cotton Candy. 

For Ken Smith, founder of Moo Thru—“real ice cream from real dairy farmers”—sales of hand-packed quarts and scoops have a stabilizing influence on a precarious business. Smith, a  fourth-generation dairy farmer in Fauquier County, manages some 2,000 dairy cows on nearly 1,000 acres. He also offers Moo Thru franchises—“join the herd!”—with a handful of locations around the state and sells milk in old-fashioned glass bottles.

Photo credit: Fred + Elliot Photography

A Mysterious Business

Even to dairy insiders, the market price for fluid milk is elusive and varies inexplicably by region. Folks shake their heads when asked why, saying only, “it’s complicated.” Paulson says the industry is made up of “price takers, not price makers,” which puts dairy farmers in an untenable spot. This complexity explains the neighborly feel of the dairy industry. Farmers have bonded over the mystery of it all.   

Driving that mystery now: ice cream and cheese. In business terms, that’s revenue diversification and vertical integration. Instead of riding the dips and shimmies of market prices, dairy farmers are choosing to sell directly to the consumer. Ice cream is leveling an uncertain playing field. 

“Making a decent living in the dairy industry has gotten a lot harder over the past 20 years,” says Alex White, Ph.D., a professor in Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences program, who specializes in the economics of agriculture and teaches in Tech’s dairy department. Higher input costs and a shrinking labor force are at play as well.  

Throw in a supply that outpaces demand, and the market can hit rock bottom. 2009 was the worst year in recent memory. 2020 wasn’t much better. “For a few years, the cost of producing milk was higher than the average price,” White says. “Farmers were living off their equity, not their profits.” Some stepped up production, hoping to cover expenses. “But by increasing supply, they put downward pressure on milk prices,” he explains. 

Photo credit: Fred + Elliot Photography

Ice Cream School

Economics, then, leads to ice cream. In 1925, what would become Penn State University spun out a class on ice cream at the Berkey Creamery, located on the edge of the campus in State College, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the school’s dairy production program, it’s thought to be the nation’s first-ever continuing education class. The first students paid $5 to enroll. Ever since then, the university has offered an intensive seven-day ice cream workshop in January—Ice Cream School—when both dairy farming and ice cream are at their sleepiest. 

Along with another hundred-odd folks, Missy Stanley, of Hanover County’s White Oak Dairy Farm, attended the ice cream workshop last year. Four years ago, the family launched Farmview Creamery, an ice cream offshoot. At Penn State, Stanley—whose official creamery title includes a string of roles—farm wife, owner, manager, and accountant—learned all about flavors, freezing, and how to prevent ice crystals.   

Stanley’s family has ascended to unimaginable ice cream heights. For them, “ordering a scoop” requires an organoleptic analysis of color, aroma, taste, and texture. On a recent research trip, she  laughed when her brother-in-law asked to sample the vanilla: “I was like: You know what vanilla tastes like!”

But she returned from Penn State’s ice cream intensive with a fresh appreciation for vanilla. In fact, everyone at Fairview takes a thoughtful approach to ice cream as they work toward establishing the creamery in the tidy cinder block building, painted French sky blue, that glistens at the end of the White Oak Dairy’s long driveway. This summer, they hope to open its doors to visitors craving a scoop. 

All told there are about 400 animals on the farm. They’re fed, for the most part, by the crops they grow in the open, flat fields that stretch in every direction beyond Farmview’s churning parlor. In the barns, calves nestle in stalls full of fluffy straw. There’s a milking parlor and a bigger barn, where the Holsteins in active production mill about. When it’s close to milking time, they cluster near the gate. 

New houses ring the Farmview’s fields like a hedge, a windbreak of development. None of them were here when her husband’s grandfather bought the farm, with its square farmhouse, from his aunt in the 1930s. Back then, the property was double the size. But another brother wanted out, so they split it. The grandfather kept his half in the dairy.  

Photo credit: Fred + Elliot Photography

Same Cows, Fewer Farms

“Many get out,” White explains, citing dairy farming’s sporadic profitability. But that doesn’t mean fewer dairy cows or lower milk production. “When a dairy farm decides to go out, their cows are often purchased by other farms, so the total number of dairy cows in production remains the same, even though the number of farms is decreasing.” 

For Stanley, the creamery has had a long incubation period. “Four years,” she marvels, flashing a quick smile with a heartfelt laugh. “Maybe that’s why the farm is still in the family. Dairy farmers are methodical.”   

She spins like a compass, talking about the flavor she’d most like to dip from the eight tubs in their new concession trailer: a vanilla swirled with jam from Agriberry Farm, just up the road. Spiked with ginger and jalapeño, the jam is called Raspberry Heat. 

You can buy ice cream anywhere, the naysayers are quick to mention. You can buy wine most anywhere, too, but that hasn’t slowed the steady stream of visitors to Virginia’s wineries and tasting rooms, which number in the 300s. For many, traveling to the source is part of the fun. 

A few years ago the Nuckols closed Eastview, the farm they’d run since 1938, leaving only one remaining dairy farm in Hanover County. Missy Stanley has known the family since high school. They go to the same church. “We’re friends!” It was hard to watch Eastview close, she says. But the family seems happy. Dairy farming is hard work, after all. 

As midsize dairies close, White says, small farmers like the Stanleys “are turning to niche markets like on-farm processing and agritourism.” Stanley turns on the gravel toward the houses at the edge of the farm. She doesn’t begrudge the development that’s sprung up around her. She’d just like to get to know her neighbors. 

“Those relationships can be invaluable,” says White. “Your customers start to see you as friends instead of farmers or business owners. You can also help promote the importance of agriculture.” 

Agritourism inspires the next generation of farmers. “It goes beyond growing food and fiber,” White says. “Farms produce energy, and a lot of the ingredients in daily-use products. Farm tours can also show that most folks in agriculture really are concerned about the environment.” 

“Dairy farmers were green before it was cool,” Stanley explains. “They grow crops to feed to the cows, breed and care for the herd, and use their manure to fertilize the fields.” She wants her neighbors to know this. She leads tours for school groups, but the second the kids encounter manure, the giggling starts. “The grownups, though—the teachers, the chaperones, the bus drivers—always ask good questions,” she says.

Paulson is quick to suggest that dairies who do make the leap into retail and agritourism need to recruit employees with the people skills at the core of any hospitality business. They need people just like Missy Stanley, with a quick smile and an ice cream scoop at the ready.

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