A Virginia dairy farm is much like other dairy farms that once populated the area, but there’s a unique twist to this one. Frank Will explains some of the background of his family’s Mt. Crawford farm.
“Our great-grandfather purchased the farm in December of 1924 and moved here in January,” said Frank Will. “He ran it as a general livestock and crop farm. My father and uncle purchased from him in 1952, built the first dairy barn and started milking as a Grade A dairy.”
Although bucket milkers were used when the dairy was started, the Wills had to install a pipeline system to ship milk to Shenandoah’s Pride. “Then in 1977, they built the freestall barn and put in a double six herringbone parlor,” said Frank. “Today the herd is mostly Holsteins, and we’re milking about 70 cows with about 15 dry cows and about 80 young stock.”
Crops for a homegrown TMR are supplemented with roasted beans for protein. Soft dough barley is available as a feedstuff in spring from a fall-planted cover crop, and winter feed is supplemented with dry hay or wrapped baleage. “We like to give the fresh cows some dry hay to get their digestive systems back again after calving,” said Frank. “Dry cows are at another farm until they’re fresh. They have pasture in summer and dry hay in winter.”
Frank’s brother Kenny handles the A.I. The goal is to breed for a good, solid cow as well as high components to ensure ample butterfat for the on-farm creamery.
The driving factor behind the creamery project was the family’s desire to obtain more value for the milk they were producing. “It’s come to where we had to do something like this to get more value for the milk,” said Frank, “or just go on volume and milk several hundred or several thousand cows. We didn’t want to do that.”
While in the planning stages for the project, the Wills visited other creameries, but at the time, there was only one other creamery in Virginia. “We found that there isn’t much information available to get into this kind of thing,” said Frank. “You almost have to go to the farms that are already doing it. We visited Perrydell Farm in York, Pennsylvania and liked what they had so we patterned ours after what they were doing.”
As the Will family planned the new aspect of their farm, they worked with the appropriate agencies to obtain licenses and permits and didn’t find the process overly cumbersome. “In Virginia, fluid milk is inspected through the health department,” said Frank. “Anything that’s processed, like cheese, butter or ice cream, is through VDACS (Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services). They’ve been very good to work with. They do regular temperature checks on the pasteurizer to make sure it’s recording properly. Everything is recorded, including pasteurizing times, temperatures, wash times and temperatures, and they can come and look through the charts.”
The Wills had a clear goal when they started, and that was to bottle fluid milk. “We didn’t have interest in making cheese,” said Frank, “but we make seasonal products like eggnog, and make ice cream mix in the summertime. We also worked out a partnership with an ice cream shop that’s on the farm.”
Construction for the creamery began in 2012, and the Mt. Crawford Creamery opened for business in May of 2013. “We built what we thought we could pay for and what we could sell,” said Frank. “With the population in this area, we should have been selling every drop of milk we produced in six months, but we still send some to the co-op.” In summer, all of the milk produced is processed on the farm, and in winter, Mt. Crawford sends milk to the co-op several days a week.
In addition to milk, Mt. Crawford sells cheese from another dairy farm, and the same farm also provides a drinkable yogurt. Many customers have requested cottage cheese, but the Wills haven’t found anyone to make it for them.
Although some customers were interested in milk in glass bottles, none of the local stores wanted the hassle of returnable bottles. “It was never really a consideration for us,” said Frank, noting that milk flavor is influenced by temperature more than the container. “Milk has to be kept cold, and we’ve preached that since we opened. If you aren’t going straight home, bring a cooler to put it in; especially in summer. And when you get home, don’t leave it on the counter.”
Once the Will family opened the creamery, they also opened their farm to the public. Frank enjoys the opportunity to interact with people and teach them about general agriculture and dairy farming. As the public becomes more aware of dairy farming practices, Frank believes it’s important to offer as much accurate information as possible.
“When customers are coming in, you’re a little more in tune to what they want and what’s going on,” said Frank. “The only time cows are in the barn is for milking or to be fed. Other than that, they’re on pasture – something that’s important to some customers.” Frank says that one of the biggest draws for people since the creamery opened is the calves, which he cares for. “People come in, walk around and look at the calves,” he said. “I try to keep several on the bottle for longer so visitors can feed them.”
Visitors are allowed to come into the parlor at milking time to observe the process, and if they’re interested, they can try milking a cow. “I try to feed calves at about 3:00 in the afternoon, and people will show up at that time just to feed a calf,” said Frank. “I explain all about feeding calves to them. People usually make two comments: they didn’t realize a baby calf could be as big as it is, and some people think the calves are ‘skinny’ so I have to explain that they’re dairy calves, and they’re bred to produce milk.”
The Mt. Crawford Creamery website includes the farm history, information about the farm, dairy facts, the Will family’s conservation efforts and a list of retailers who carry Mt. Crawford Creamery products. The clever ‘We’re Pulling For You’ is an attention-grabbing line that heads up each page of their website.
Frank says opening the creamery and the farm to the public has been an education for his family. “It’s been enjoyable to meet all the people,” he said. “We get to explain things to them. One of the resorts nearby has a pamphlet that lists our farm as something to do if they don’t want to go skiing. We get a lot of people stopping by from the Virginia Beach area and D.C. – people come from literally from all over the world.”
Visit Mt. Crawford Creamery on line at www.mtcrawfordcreamery.com.