Coley Jones Drinkwater was raised on a historic family farm in Virginia. But since she wasn’t encouraged to return to the farm, she made other plans.
“The farm has been in our family since the mid 1700s,” said Coley. “To put it in perspective, I tell people, ‘my family has been farming this land since before this country was an independent nation.’”
Coley’s grandfather was the only one of his generation interested in the farm. At the time, the family was growing tobacco on the Blackstone, VA farm, but he decided to switch to dairy farming. The family continued dairy farming and passed the farm down to the next generation. Coley and her brother T.R. were next.
“We were not encouraged to come back to the farm,” said Coley. “Our parents didn’t want us to be dairy farmers because they knew about the long hours and hard work.”
Coley followed their advice and received a degree in human nutrition, food and exercise from Virginia Tech, with the idea of becoming an occupational therapist. “When I was finished, I was burned out and would have to do a master’s program,” she said. “I always wanted to travel the world, so I got a job as a waitress, saved up my tips and spent a year traveling around the world.”
When she returned home, Coley was broke and had nowhere to live. Fortunately, it was August and her father needed help with harvest. “Having grown up on the farm, chores were a requirement, and I already knew how to drive the chopper and tractors and everything he needed help with,” she said. “I worked for my dad and really enjoyed it.”
Coley realized that this was an opportunity to see if working on the farm was a viable career option. “It’s been about 12 years now and I’m still on the dairy farm,” she said. “I absolutely love what I do. I took on the role of herd manager and my brother is more interested in crops and field work, so that divided the work nicely.”
Today, Richlands Dairy Farm milks 250 cows twice a day in a double 10 parallel, rapid exit parlor. The farmland is used to grow corn, triticale and ryegrass for the herd. Low, dry cows and pre-fresh cows are housed in a freestall barn, and high cows are housed in a bedded pack barn. “For cow comfort, you can’t beat the pack barn,” said Coley. “We add sawdust weekly or more frequently if necessary. The bedded pack is tilled twice a day to keep the surface optimal and fluffy. We’ve had fewer health problems because the cows are more comfortable and have more room to lounge.”
The herd is primarily Holstein, with some Holstein-Jersey crosses and a few Swedish Red crosses. Sires are chosen based on mating selections from Select Sires. “One thing we are specifically looking for is the A2A2 factor,” said Coley. “The science is still young on that; whether the A2A2 offers any health benefits. But if consumers think it offers a benefit, public perception is what matters.”
Coley has another reason for adding colored breeds — the family is preparing to add a creamery to the farm and Coley wants to increase butterfat. “We’re the size of dairy that’s disappearing the fastest,” she said. “We’re too big to be small and we’re too small to be big. We’re really good at what we do if you look at industry standards; we’re in the top 10 even compared to larger dairies. The problem is we aren’t big enough to get the efficiency of scale.”
Declining milk prices about two years ago helped Coley’s argument to add a creamery. “My father didn’t encourage us to come back to the farm, but now that we’re here, I know he enjoys working with us,” said Coley. “We’ve done feasibility studies, developed a marketing plan, determined a site and we’re now finalizing finances and the building. The goal was to be up and running by August of 2018, but it’s probably going to be fall or winter of next year.” The initial plan is to pasteurize and sell bottled milk, ice cream, butter and half and half, then add seasonal products such as eggnog.
Now that Coley is focused on developing the creamery, her sister-in-law Brittany, who has a master’s degree in dairy science, has taken over as herd manager. The family visited about a dozen creameries of all sizes during the initial planning stage to get ideas for their own enterprise.
Coley is confident that customers will patronize the creamery because the farm has already developed an agritourism program. “We have a head start with customers because people come to the farm, take a tour, then ask where they can purchase our products,” said Coley. “Now we can tell them the creamery is coming and they’ll be able to buy our products here.”
Richland Farms has been hosting spring farm tours for young children for as long as Coley can remember, and she expanded the tours when she returned to the farm. “When Brittany joined us on the farm, she wanted to do a pumpkin patch and corn maze, so this is our fourth year doing that,” said Coley. “The Fall Festival is open to the public on weekends in October. The admission charge covers everything including a hay bale maze for kids, cottonseed pit and vendors who do hands-on agricultural educational activities such as butter making. We also do walking tours of the farm.”
This past June, Richlands Dairy Farm hosted their first ‘Dinner on the Dairy’. Rather than having a farm to table meal featuring local food, the farmers who grew the food were also present for the family-style meal. Coley’s goal in creating the event was to encourage consumers to seek out farmers to answer questions about agriculture.
“I always tell people, you wouldn’t ask your mechanic a medical question — you’d ask your doctor,” said Coley. “It should be the same with your food. If you have a question about food, you shouldn’t be pulling information from the internet — you should ask a farmer. But when less than two percent of the population farms, it’s hard to find a farmer to ask.”
Coley says that her grandfather was forward-thinking when it came to farm planning and laid the groundwork for a smooth transition, including incorporation so future farm ownership could be passed down through stock.
Although the creamery is a big step for her generation, Coley is confident that it will succeed. “The creamery is going to have to be community-supported,” she said. “We’re going to build it, but we’re going to rely on people passing through to stop in and buy products to support it.”
Visit Richlands Dairy Farm online at www.richlandsdairyfarm.com.