HARRISONBURG — Frank Will starts his morning before the sun comes up — around 3:30 to be precise.
The first thing he does is feed the more than 75 working cattle. Then he begins milking the cows around 4 a.m.
Once the cattle are taken care of, Frank Will sits down to have breakfast.
Another round of feeding and milking comes in the late afternoon and each milking session, a cow can produce seven gallons of milk, according to Will.
Any other parts of a daily routine at Mt. Crawford Creamery revolve around the changing needs of the land.
“We are constantly involved with the creamery,” said Will, a part-owner of the creamery.
The Mt. Crawford Creamery opened in 2013 in an attempt to capture the retail market, according to Will.
Frank Will said it is the only dairy farm within 100 miles that retails directly to customers.
Prior to opening the creamery, the Will farm has kept ground in Mt. Crawford since 1924 when Thomas Will purchased the land at auction, according to the creamery’s website.
For 27 years, Thomas Will operated the land as a general livestock and crop farm — raising cattle and growing hay and corn.
A dairy farm was built in 1952 when his grandsons purchased the farm. Melvin and James Will then began milking cows and selling their milk to what is now known as Shenandoah’s Pride.
Present owners, Frank and Kenneth Will, took over the farm in 1979.
Dairy Industries Curdling Problems
There are roughly 450 dairy farms in Virginia, with 198 of those dairy farms in Rockingham County, according to Eric Paulson, the executive secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Dairymen.
Rockingham County “makes up almost a third of dairy in Virginia,” Paulson said.
The number of dairy farms has continued to drop, according to the Dairy Alliance, with 565 dairy farms in Virginia accounted for in 2018. That number has decreased by 115.
“We lost two [dairy] farms a week in the first three months in 2019,” Paulson said. “But it is a nationwide issue.”
Paulson said he was seeing the worst run of poor milk prices in decades, with some producers unable to survive and transitioning to a different industry.
One of the issues? Overproduction of milk.
Every dairy cow in Virginia provides an average of 2,291 gallons of milk per year, according to the Dairy Alliance. The amount of milk produced in the state is close to 190 million gallons.
The first-hand experience of the price of milk decreasing in 2009 led the Will brothers to make the decision to process and sell the farm’s own milk.
Their products can be found not only in the Valley, but in grocery stores such as Ellwood Thompson’s and Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market — both located in the metro-Richmond area.
Due to the creamery selling its own products directly, Frank Will said his team has not felt the beating the dairy industry has taken over the last five years with the oversupply of milk.
“The population has doubled while milk consumption has stayed the same,” Will said. “People are in competition with each other to make the cheapest product.”
For Paulson, a factor to consider is the fact that the dairy industry produces a perishable product everyday, which does affect other producers.
Dairy’s Impact In The Valley
Rockingham County produced more than $112 million worth of milk from 232 dairies, according to the United States Department of Agriculture 2017 Census. Virginia as a while produced more than $334 million in 2017.
“That number has most likely dropped with the decline in milk prices and roughly 35 fewer dairies,” Paulson said.
Augusta County produced more than $26 million, while Shenandoah County produced more than $6 million.
On a state wide level, the economic impact of the dairy industry in Virginia during 2018 was $3.17 billion, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. The economic impact of dairy products produced and sold specifically in Virginia was $10.38 billion.
The industry produced 24,738 jobs with another 36,534 jobs indirectly supporting the dairy industry through suppliers and the indirect impact of the industry’s expenditures.