WIRTZ, Va. — “How many of you use local produce and meat?” Donnie Montgomery, co-owner of Homestead Creamery, asked a van full of school nutritionists.
Answers ranged from a little produce to produce and beef, and it wasn’t long before what started as a tour turned into a discussion of the logistics of using local food in school lunches and the fickle nature of students’ tastes.
“We did (locally produced) patties for a while and the kids would fuss because they said they were pink. The patties were cooked, but they were so used to the gray ones,” said Heather Snead, nutritionist for Franklin County Public Schools. “We expected them to be so excited because the beef would be softer and yummier, but they wanted the gray burger with soy.”
After a year, Franklin County schools stopped selling the local beef patties, but Snead is interested in trying again with ground beef, something representatives from Amherst County schools, sitting in the van seat behind her, had success with.
The Homestead Creamery tour on June 6 was part of the Taking Root Farm Tours initiative started by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or VDACS.
The motivation for the tour came from a 2010 statewide assessment of the Virginia Farm to School program. Virginia Tech surveyed local school nutrition directors and discovered that 75 percent of respondents wanted to connect with local farmers.
“They realize the challenges with sourcing direct,” said Leanne DuBoise of VDACS. “But overwhelmingly they’d like to have a dialogue with producers.”
Targeted directly at school nutrition directors, Taking Root Farm Tours gave participants a chance to tour farms and distribution centers across the state with at least one from each region. There were 20 schools districts registered for the tours as well as representatives from area hospitals, community health and wellness organizations and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Homestead Creamery was one of nine tour stops, all of which began on May 14 and ended Wednesday with a tour of Agriberry in Studley, Va.
Participants had a chance to tour the 300-acre Montgomery Dairy along with the creamery itself. Established in 2001, Homestead Creamery has grown from two farmers who wanted to process their own milk into a thriving wholesale and retail business, selling milk, butter and ice cream through grocery retailers like Kroger and Whole Foods.
In 2006, the farmers started a home delivery business, beginning with one truck and expanding to four trucks, serving over 1,000 households.
“That was like starting another business, but it’s been good because it’s allowed us to expand our product offerings,” said Donnie Montgomery. “It’s advertised for us, too, because we have trucks on the road all the time.”
A throw back to the iconic milkman trucks, Homestead Creamery’s delivery trucks are painted with the company logo and trademark glass bottles, an integral part of the company’s brand.
“The advice we got from most people when we started was that if we wanted to do a niche product we needed to be a little different,” he said.
The logistics of bottling their milk in glass has been a challenge. Bottle washing, deposits and the added weight and labor add to the costs, but in the end the benefits outweigh the problems.
“There’s been more of a move to being environmental responsible and recycling. It’s actually been our niche. I think we would have struggled with another kind of packaging,” he said.
In addition to Montgomery’s 90-head Holstein herd, co-owner David Bowers’ 90-head herd of Holsteins and Jerseys has supplied milk for the creamery. As business has grown, however, so has the demand for more milk.
“We’ve had to look at another farmer with the same kind of practices that we have,” said Montgomery. “We’re thankful for that. We can pick a local farm to partner with to take care of our supply.”
Because of the cyclical nature of milk production, maintaining supply occasionally results in surpluses. In order to balance milk supply, the creamery is expanding their business to include making cheese and yogurt. Homestead Creamery was the first ever recipient of a grant from the Agriculture and Forest Industries Development Fund. The grant allowed them to put in a storage silo for raw milk and they intend to be making yogurt within a year and cheese about six months after that. Homestead Creamery currently supplies milk to some schools and colleges.
“We do it a la carte,” said Heather Snead.
The new school nutrition lunch guidelines restrict the fat content of milk that can be served as part of a school lunch.
“We were wondering if they were going to take it and they buy a lot,” Montgomery said.
A 12-ounce cup sells for $1 on the Franklin County school lunch line.
Montgomery said he thought the temperature helped, too. Schools buy the milk in 5-gallon packages that fit into a dispenser that holds the milk at temperature instead of small cartons stored in a cooler that students opens hundreds of times over lunch.
After the creamery tour, participants had a chance to learn more about the cows that produce the milk. Montgomery explained feed rations and showed the components of the milking machine. The nutritionists asked questions about how the farmer tells which cow to milk and when and how much milk the average cow gives.
“What happens to the cows after they aren’t useful anymore — when they stop giving enough milk?” asked a participant.
“They make good hamburger,” answered Montgomery to the laughter of the group.
More information on the Taking Root Farm Tours can be found at http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/marketing/farm-tours.shtml