When I first learned that I’d gotten the opportunity to tour Mt Crawford Creamery and interview Nancy Hill, I thought it’d be a simple enough task. I wasn’t expecting to really connect with the cows, their calves, or the family that runs Mt. Crawford Creamery as much as I did. The tour was a short one, but full of interesting bits of information that we should all know, but don’t due to how removed we have become from the process of farming. What I got out of my time at Mt. Crawford Creamery was so much more than a tour and an interview – I left the Creamery with the knowledge that the Shenandoah Valley is home to one of the finest producers of milk in the state and confidence in the future of farming in America.
The Dairy Farmer’s Struggle
When you get right down to it, the media has shed a somewhat negative light on dairy farmers and milk in recent years. Take a look at all of the supplemental milk products in the dairy section at your grocery store and you’ll see firsthand the power that media plays on consumerism. False claims from health bloggers and TV show personalities spout claims, which are demonstrably false, that milk leads to calcium deficiency and osteoporosis. Let’s not forget the media’s “hormone”-driven, antibiotic-craze that targeted generic milk in cartons and had you buying organic, boxed milk, either.
“If your milk gets caught having antibiotics in it, you can be fined up to $10,000 and lose your license. So that’s something that people don’t mess with. You lose your license, you’ll lose your life,” Nancy Hill explained. She’s been helping run Mt Crawford Creamery with her family since she was a child.
“One of the misconceptions about ‘organic’ milk… You’ll see that it says ‘antibiotic-free’ or ‘gluten free’. All milk in the United States is antibiotic free. It all gets tested. And there is no gluten in milk.” Running with today’s theme in the food world, a brand almost has to have a gluten free or non-gmo label if it expects to be a successful product. Many of these labels hurt more than they help, especially when it comes to the small, local farmer.
Overcoming obstacles like big brands and conglomerates cornering the market, Mt Crawford bottles and sells their products on site, which can be sampled. Nancy reported that some clients are startled when they first see the layer of cream on top of their milk. Due to their simple production process, their milk maintains a timeless, dependable and delicious quality.
Shocking articles like this one reveal the hardships today’s farmers’ face as it becomes more and more difficult to sustain a farm. It’s heartbreaking to see suicide rates for farmers, but it’s also a wake up call. Shop small and support your local business or watch them go extinct. The first step to fighting this epidemic is to educate people. That’s something Nancy works on daily.
Mt Crawford History
The land that is today Mt Crawford was originally purchased in 1924 by Hill’s great-great grandfather as a means to farm wheat and beef. The farm underwent many changes along the way, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the family-run farm began milking cows. The milk was sold to Shenandoah’s Pride, the largest milk co-op at the time, but was ultimately shifted to Dean’s Foods when they purchased Shenandoah in 1992.
“That hurt a lot of farmers in the area because there was no place to sell their milk to anymore. What we ended up doing was selling our milk to DFA.” Nancy recalls the DFA coming in with their tanker trunks, used to export their milk which often ended up in states as far as Tennessee and Florida.
Eventually rising costs would cause Hill and her family to reconsider their business plan. “We realized that in order for the farm to sustain itself, we had to do something different.”
With the additional financial pressure the 2008 housing market crash created, Hill’s family decided that they were going to cut the middleman out. Soon they would be processing, marketing, and selling their milk themselves. This proved to be a successful endeavor, but it didn’t come without a lot of hard work. “We started calling universities, colleges, and other creameries… and we realized that this is something we could actually do.” The rest is history.
On May 11, 2013, Mt. Crawford Creamery officially opened for business and has been processing its own milk since. They stand as one of the only creameries in the state that exclusively bottle their own product.
Mt Crawford Tours
If you ask Nancy Hill about her favorite part of the whole business process, she’ll undoubtedly tell you it’s the tours.
“I like meeting new people! Considering Rockingham County is the largest dairy producing county in the state of Virginia, it still surprises me to this day how many people have grown up here have never been around a cow!” A full time teacher as well, its natural for Nancy to be drawn to the educational pull that the tours offer.
The tour starts in the factory facility where the milk is boiled…
…and continues to the milking station where 77 cows get milked twice daily.
Enjoy petting the baby calves!
On your last stop of the tour, you’ll get to pet all of the younger cows on your way out. Directly in your view you’ll see Smiley’s Ice Cream, where all ice cream is made using Mt Crawford’s milk. I do not recommend skipping this last part. It’s delicious. (Thank me later.)
I’ll leave you with my favorite part of the interview: Nancy Hill explaining what she has loved most about running a farm.
“I can say I wouldn’t trade it for the world. A lot of people don’t have the experience I had growing up and I know like my niece and nephew… they won’t have the same experience I’ve had. If I have kids, they won’t have the same experience. So it’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity the way you grew up. My niece nephew, they’ve known the creamery almost their whole lives. It’s like they don’t know it without this. They’re almost kind of numb to it because they’re so used to it, whereas it took me and the rest of us a lot of adjustments. But I really wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
I want to thank Nancy again for giving me a wonderful experience that’ll stick with me for a long time. I will never forget all of the great information I learned along the way, and value farmers so much more. I hope those reading will go out to Harrisonburg to meet these hard working people and experience the labor and love that goes into the Shenandoah Valley’s freshest milk.