Family Finds Its Niche With Small Floyd County Dairy
WILLIS, Va. — Sterling Bridge Dairy Farm LLC is nestled in the hills of Floyd County, Va., only miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Specialty cheeses are made by the family that owns the farm and sells the products at a farmers market.
Nancy Crompton talked about the family’s venture on a sunny October morning, tracing the history of the farm from her husband Randy’s early days in Wisconsin. Randy, who worked in Washington, D.C., for nine years, had always wanted to have a dairy, she said.
Sterling Bridge, with its four Jersey cows on 35 hilly acres here, is the answer to that wish.
The Cromptons’ son Elliott, a recent Virginia Tech graduate, works with his parents on the farm which uses draft horses rather than tractors to do the farming. Randy does the milking with machines and Nancy makes the cheeses and other dairy products, including butter. She uses an electric churn.
After the family decided to move from the D.C. area, they looked all over for a farm, Nancy said. The search included New York state and West Virginia, as well as Virginia. They finally decided they wanted to stay in the Old Dominion because they like living in Virginia.
They had visited Floyd County earlier and enjoyed their times here, so when they began seeing real estate listings for farms in Floyd they started looking seriously and found the land that is now home to the family, the cows and young cattle, a team of Suffolk Punch draft horses, some ducks, some chickens, and one turkey hen who was hatched by the chicken hens and thinks she is a chicken.
The family tried raising goats, but decided that was not a good idea for them. The problems goats have with internal parasites and the need for special fencing to keep them where they are supposed to be were factors in the decision to stop raising them, Nancy said.
The Cromptons started producing cheese from their milk in spring 2008. At that time, they were also making goat cheeses from their own goat milk. Now they buy goat milk from a producer in North Carolina for the goat cheese Nancy makes.
This time of year, the cheese making is winding down, she said during a tour of her cheese house. April, May and June are usually the months for making the best cheese, but a summer with lots of moisture can extend the season somewhat. Nancy is making butter this fall.
Nancy ages her cow cheeses. She also makes something called “Squeaky Fresh,” a cheese that is popular in Wisconsin and New York but is relatively unknown in Virginia. It is a fresh cheese that has a taste some say is similar to mozzarella, Nancy said. People tell her they use it in pizza and other recipes, although it is intended to be a snack food.
Another Crompton product made from cow milk is called “moo-gert,” a product similar to yogurt. The difference is determined by how high the temperature reaches during the production process, Nancy said
The family produces two types of goat cheese, feta and chevre.
The Cromptons have a 50-gallon pasteurizer which heats the milk with steam concentrated between its inside and outside walls and under the lid. The steam must reach a temperature of 145 degrees F or above and that must be maintained for 30 minutes.
Nancy said she is especially proud of the chart recorder that is attached to the pasteurizer and hangs on the wall above it. It is a device that is cranked to be activated, rather than relying on electricity. It keeps records on paper inserted into it of what is happening with the pasteurizer, and these charts become legal documents, she said.
The steam for the pasteurizer is created by a wood burning boiler located outside the work area of the cheese house. Nancy said this has proven to be the most economical way to provide heat.
The Cromptons like doing things by older methods and they have good help for much of it — the team of red horses named Sally and Sadie. These Suffolk draft animals pull many different kinds of farm machinery, including a plow, disc and mowing machine.
The Cromptons planted their 1.5-acre plot of corn by hand this year, Elliott said. He was pleased with its 10-foot height and the way the grain was drying in mid-October.
The Cromptons week revolves around the two days, Wednesday and Saturday, when they take their produce to the Blacksburg Farmers Market near Virginia Tech. This is where they sell most of the food products produced on their farm.
The hills of Floyd County may be a long way from Randy’s boyhood home in Wisconsin, but the family seems to have found a niche in the agricultural industry that suits its members.