Dreary milk market motivates Va. farmer to establish dairy
BLACKSTONE, Va. — The way that family members of Richlands Dairy viewed their circumstances a few years ago they had three options to survive a low milk price of possibly $15 per hundredweight. They could sell out, which neither close-knit family member wanted; they could increase their herd size substantially from about 200 to more than 1,000 head, which would require more land for corn, silage and haylage; or they could restructure the business model to set their own milk price versus being told what they could receive.
Their conclusion was to go with the third option and build a creamery so they could add value to their fresh milk.
Richlands Dairy and Creamery of Dinwiddie County, Va., consists of father, Hugh Jones; his wife, Tracey; his son, T.R. and wife Brittany; and Hugh’s daughter, Coley Jones Drinkwater, along with employees. Drinkwater is the creamery manager and sales and marketing manager.
“When we built this place I wanted it to be a destination, a place where you could come a few hours, get lunch or dinner, ice cream, sit on the porch, play on the playground, and take a hayride out to the farm. You could spend a couple hours here,” Drinkwater said.
The creamery opened June 21, 2019 and business had just started picking up. Then COVID-19 hit the United States, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam began imposing restrictions on eating establishments and retail outlets. Changes lied ahead.
“It’s actually three businesses here,” Drinkwater said. “There’s the dairy farm, the creamery and then we have an agritourism business. It’s affected all three businesses very differently.”
The dairy farm still has to operate but must maneuver through low milk prices. Agritourism came to a standstill once COVID-19 restrictions were imposed. The creamery kept operating, but with modifications, limiting to drive-thru service.
“As far as the creamery goes, it’s been an interesting time during COVID because there were two news stories on local news stations that gave us some publicity, so we got a bump from that,” Drinkwater said, “but we weren’t open this time last year, so I have no idea what a normal March, April, May sales would be like. I don’t have anything to compare it to, so I can’t say if we’re busy, slow or normal. I think we were busier than we would have been because we’re one of the few places that was open, that was serving food.
Once people learned Richlands Creamery was open, they were driving locally and from hours away so they could leave their homes and order cool ice cream and other goodies.
“They still had to be in the car,” Drinkwater said. “They may have had to wait for an hour for ice cream, but as one family put it ‘we can either be stuck at home staring at each other, or we can be in the car staring at each other and have ice cream at the end of it.’
“It was still cool so the cows were out on pasture,” she continued. “When you were in the drive-thru, you could see the cows. Then we started trying to book a band once a weekend, or something to be in the middle of the drive-thru circle. So you could hear live music, see the cows, get ice cream, and get a meal. We were able to maintain being a destination for families to come to and have a little bit of normality in an abnormal time.
“I think, until the restrictions are eased further and we can allow maximum occupancy, we’ll just stick with the drive-thru because it keeps my employees safe, keeps our customers safer,” Drinkwater said. “I have no idea how long that will be. I can tell you I look forward to the day when customers can go inside.”
Besides the retail side of the business, Richlands Creamery operates a wholesale side. With the publicity from the two news stories, Drinkwater was able to secure delivery of their milk products to 10 area Food Lion stores and some independent grocery stores. She saw wholesale milk sales increase substantially; although, those numbers have declined in past weeks because of restriction easing by the governor.
It was always Drinkwater’s dream to open a creamery and grow it steadily. COVID-19 blurred the dream a bit. “I can’t say this was part of living the dream,” she said. “We’re still growing; we’re using about 30 percent of milk from the farm right now so it’s definitely a different vision of the dream, but it’s still part of it.”
Drinkwater said she would like to see the 13,392 square-foot creamery use more of Richlands Dairy’s milk—perhaps stretching the 30 percent amount to 90 or 100 percent.
On site, the creamery processes the milk, makes the ice cream and cooks meals. Part of Drinkwater’s dream is to promote local farm businesses. Those businesses now include:
• Browntown Farms of Warfield, Va., strawberry jam.
• Mardelian Farm of Dinwiddie, Va., goat milk soap products.
• Ruxville Farm of Moseley, Va., wool products.
• Bugle Call Coffee of Quinton, Va., coffee.
• Hudson Henry Granola of Palmyra, Va., granola products.
• Goodwin Family Farm of Dinwiddie, Va., soy candles.
• Newsoms Peanuts of Newsoms, Va., peanut products.
• C&W Bees Apiary and Farm of Dinwiddie, Va., local honey.
• Halo’s Eggs of Dinwiddie County, eggs.
The creamery employs more than 30 people. Drinkwater said growing the farm store is important. In the future, she wants to offer buttermilk, beef and pork product lines. She plans to expand marketing to the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas and delivery to other regions, maybe adding two to three delivery trucks. Drinkwater added she hopes to expand the playground setup and add pavilion seating. Adding another larger grocery store chain sounds good to her too.
“Then it’s always fun to try new ice cream flavors,” she says. “That’ll always be part of the joy of having the creamery.”