by Karl H. Kazaks
MT. CRAWFORD, VA — This year June Dairy Month tastes especially sweet for Frank and Kenny Will.
Last month they opened Mt. Crawford Creamery on their 80-cow dairy.
“We went out on a limb, took a leap of faith — whatever you want to call it,” said Frank Will, describing their decision to build the creamery.
After just a few short weeks of operation, their new venture is already a measured success. The Wills are currently bottling about 1,000 gallons of milk a week and in all likelihood will soon be bottling a third day’s worth of their dairy’s milk production.
When the Wills opened the retail store at their creamery on Saturday, May 11, they didn’t know how many customers would show up.
“It was unbelievable how many people came that first day,” said Frank. “There was a steady stream.”
“We sold out of chocolate milk before noon,” said Kenny. The next weekend they tripled their chocolate milk supply to 150 gallons and sold all of it again. (Demand for butter continues to outstrip supply, partially a function of the lesser demand for skim milk.)
Their location, Frank Will said, convinced the brothers that they had a reasonable chance of success opening a retail creamery. “A pile of traffic goes past us everyday,” he said. “We’re just off the Interstate, just outside of Harrisonburg.”
Most of their retail traffic comes from Rockingham, Augusta, Page, and Shenandoah counties, but on Memorial Day weekend people showed up from Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. They are open weekdays and Saturdays.
The creamery also sells their milk wholesale. “We’ve had people all over the state call us about our milk,” said Kenny. Currently they deliver to stores from Luray to Staunton and locations in-between (notably Harrisonburg and Weyers Cave).
The brothers first considered building the plant in 2009 when the price of milk collapsed. “We knew we had to do something or quit,” Frank said.
In 2011, they started applying for permits. They had more or less accurately estimated the cost of excavation, building, and equipment, but where the surprise in cost came was in installation. All the plumbing and wiring — “Everything is three-phase, and there’s a lot of conduit,” Frank said — added up.
By early May they were ready to pump milk from their parlor into the creamery.
“That’s when you really get nervous,” Frank said.
On May 7, they ran a batch of milk and sent samples to be tested. They were given a green light, so they opened that following Saturday and haven’t looked back since.
This month the Wills have been marking June Dairy Month and the opening of their new facility with a series of celebrations. On June 1 local resident Casey Billhimer showcased his collection of historic Shenandoah Valley milk bottles — some sixty examples from different creameries that have operated in the area.
On June 15, current Virginia Dairy Princess Kristina Callender stopped by the farm with her prize-winning show cow.
And this week there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday the 26 and an open house and farm tour on Saturday the 29.
Looking ahead, if the Wills get to the point where they are bottling all of their own milk and still have more demand, they may consider becoming licensed as a processor and bottle milk from another dairy. (They don’t intend to expand the size of their dairy.) But that’s in the future.
For now, the goal is to bottle and market all of their own production. That and get relicensed so their storefront can sell items from other producers — jellies, honey, and the like.
The larger goal is to keep the family on the farm, the Wills brothers said.
Getting to know the family is something customers like when they stop by the creamery. That and getting up close to the cows that make the milk they drink. (The Wills’s cows are mostly Holstein, with a few Jersey crosses.)
“People they like to walk out and see the cows,” Kenny said. “They come here and watch us feed calves.”
“It’s always something different,” Frank said. “Kind of like milking cows.”
For more information about the creamery, check their Facebook page. The Wills’s farm is situated about two miles west of I-81 off exit 240.
by Karl H. Kazaks