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Metro centers, tourism boost dairy in Virginia, West Virginia

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest states — Virginia and West Virginia.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Between the U.S. Capital, famous wineries, mountainous landscape and Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and West Virginia’s proximity to population centers and tourism provide a built-in market for milk, cheese and other dairy products.

Gail Hobbs-Page, owner and cheesemaker at Caromont Farm near Charlottesville in Esmont, Virginia, has turned her goat farm and cheesemaking operation into a destination spot, offering farm dinners, cheesemaking classes and baby goat snuggle sessions. Much of her cheese is sold at nearby farmers markets.

“We’re very lucky in that we live near a university town and a pretty sophisticated food shed. People do want good cheese,” says Hobbs-Page, who was a chef for 20 years before starting her cheese business in 2007. “We’re food-forward, and not just in cheese. Agritourism is big. There are fantastic wineries in central Virginia. There are great restaurants, boutique hotels, and a lot of tourists.”

Ken Smith is a fourth-generation dairy farmer based in Remington, Virginia, about an hour southwest of the Washington, D.C., metro area. He milks 700 cows with his son, nephew and son-in-law, and owns Moo Thru Creamery where one daughter makes ice cream and another runs the ice cream vending trailer. Recognized as the No. 1 ice cream store in Virginia by local and national publications, Moo Thru has two stores in Remington and in the resort area of Lake Anna, serving about 300,000 customers each year.

“It’s just constantly grown,” Smith says of his 8-year-old ice cream business. “All the commuters started moving out from D.C. to northern Virginia. Our shop is located between Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville. Any time they’re heading south, I’m on U.S. 29 right in between. We got to be a rest area for stopovers. It turned out to be just a godsend.”

• Cow capital

Virginia is home to 87,000 milk cows, and West Virginia to 8,000, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2017, Virginia’s dairy farms produced 1.7 billion pounds of milk, while West Virginia produced 127 million pounds.

“We have an ideal climate — just a perfect climate, not too hot and never too cold,” Smith says. “We don’t have to house any animal from the time they’re one year old to when they calve. They’re outside winter, summer, spring and fall. There’s not a whole lot of snow, and good rainfall here. We never have to irrigate.”

Todd Hough, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Charles Town, West Virginia, milks about 200 cows at the dairy farm he co-owns with his brother. Their dairy is one of the larger ones left in the state.

“There are not many of us left in West Virginia,” Hough says. “In our county (Jefferson County), one of the leading dairy counties, there are about seven. This county used to have 50-60 dairies when I was a boy. A lot of it has to do with families who ran out of generations to take on farms, land values went higher, and a lot of other reasons.”

Smith and Hough are both members of Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative, which has 1,250 members across several Eastern states and markets 3 billion pounds of milk annually. The cooperative has 105 farmers in Virginia and six in West Virginia. It is headquartered in Reston, Virginia.

Troye Cooper, director of operations, milk marketing and member services for the cooperative, says dairy farm trends in Virginia and West Virginia mirror those around the nation.

“Smaller farms are going out, and larger farms are getting larger,” he says. “Small family farms are struggling. I don’t think it’s anything different in Virginia and West Virginia than it is in Wisconsin.”

However, Cooper notes that even the larger farms aren’t as large as ones found in other surrounding states like New York. There are a handful of dairies with more than 500 cows, while other dairies in Virginia and West Virginia range from 80-250 head.

Due to their proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, dairy farmers in Virginia also must work around special environmental concerns and an added level of environmental regulations. This also limits the size of dairies in the area.

“Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers does our part at the forefront of protecting the bay,” Cooper says. “Our farms are very conscientious of conservation and good farming practices. Virginia is on the cutting edge of compliance — it’s a culture that exists there.”

Virginia is one of the few states that has a state milk commission, which ensures that consumers in Virginia have a constant, available and reasonably-priced supply of milk The commission licenses all processors and distributors that sell fluid milk products in Virginia, preserves market stability and establishes monthly producer prices as competitive levels.

Virginia has a very robust dairy infrastructure, Cooper notes, with a prominent Virginia State Dairymen’s Association and dairy-focused Virginia Farm Bureau. However, there are less services for dairy farms further south in Virginia, and hardly any dairy infrastructure in West Virginia.

The proximity to a large, growing consumer base between the Carolinas and D.C. area provides a demand advantage but also competition for land.

“There is very fertile land in certain areas of Virginia,” Cooper says. “In northern Virginia, there is developmental pressure — it’s a double-edged sword — more people are coming, but they have to live somewhere, so they’re moving to the outskirts of cities and raising the cost a little too high for some folks to sustain.”

• Processing growth

Virginia is home to a number of large dairy processing facilities, including two owned by Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers: an ingredients plant in Strasburg, Virginia, and a fluid milk plant in Newport News, Virginia. The cooperative also has two processing facilities in Maryland. Maryland and Virginia owns the Maola dairy brand and offers private label products to customers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its ingredients are sold across the United States as well as internationally.

West Virginia has one major processing facility, a United Dairy plant in Charleston, West Virginia.

“There has been considerable growth in the Shenandoah Valley along the 81 corridor,” Cooper says, noting plants owned by Shamrock Farms in Verona, Virginia; HP Hood in Winchester, Virginia; and DanoneWave in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. “Our facility in Strasburg is really valuable, providing a balancing facility to those plants.”

Maryland and Virginia recently completed its largest capital project to-date, increasing the capabilities in three of its four processing facilities.

“Over the last five years, it has become really exciting as we have taken our destiny into our own hands,” Cooper says. “Our projections for the future are that we will be processing more of our members’ milk than relying on third parties.”

For small-scale processors, growth has been a challenging proposition. Hobbs-Page used to make cheeses from Jersey cow’s milk in addition to her goat’s milk cheeses, but it became too difficult to find an affordable source. Much of the milk in the state is sold to larger processors, while many smaller farmers can obtain premium prices for their raw milk via herd shares that aren’t regulated by the state.

“The cow’s milk I used was grass-fed Jersey, beautiful milk. My guy was doing milk shares for $10 a gallon, compared to $4 a gallon for cheese. He would sell me his extra,” Hobbs-Page says. “He eventually moved to Minnesota.”

In addition to its fresh Chevre, Caromont Farms offers three main styles of goat’s milk cheeses: Esmontonian, an award-winning Tomme-style aged cheese; Chabi, a bloomy rind Robiola-style cheese; and Mt. Alto Feta. Last year it produced around 25,000 pounds of cheese.

“We have really streamlined our offerings,” Hobbs-Page says. “We just don’t have the plant space, nor do we have the milk here in Virginia, to have a lot of different offerings.”

Meadow Creek Dairy, Galax, Virginia, is a family farm in the mountains of southwest Virginia that has been making cheeses from milk from its Jersey herd since 1998. In 2014, Meadow Creek purchased a second farm and launched an expansion that included a second dairy and two new cellars as well as nearly doubling its herd size. Its award-winning cheeses are distributed nationally.

“Despite this, we still struggle to make enough cheese to meet the market’s demand,” says Kat Feete, cheesemaker, Meadow Creek Dairy.

She notes that the artisan cheesemaking industry in Virginia was very small when the family started out, and it remains very small now.

“While there’s certainly a growing interest in cheeses within the state, actually getting a cheese operation off the ground isn’t easy,” Feete says. “Our area of Virginia in particular is very rural, which has its ups and downs. On the up side it was relatively easy for us to find and buy good farmland, and the tradition of farming in the area means we have an immense amount of support from our local community. On the downside, it’s not easy to recruit staff that want to come live in a small Virginia town and make cheese, and we also don’t have the advantage of a large urban market or farmer’s market nearby to sell our product; we’ve had to rely entirely on mail order and wholesale accounts.”

Hobbs-Page has decided to focus less on production growth and more on developing Caromont Farm’s agritourism, as well as traveling to gather inspiration for future cheeses.

“I’m going to Northern Italy for a month in October, to a place that has been aging cheese for 125 years.

Maybe I will learn a few tricks,” she says. “You really have to do a lot of research before putting money and time into a new cheese ... part of that process is going over there and getting some new­ — or old — ideas.”

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