1/11/2014 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent
MOUNT CRAWFORD, Va. — As was the case for dairy farmers throughout the region, plummeting milk prices in 2009 forced Frank and Kenny Will to make some difficult decisions.
“We knew we were either going to have to do something else or quit,” said Frank Will.
The options seemed clear: get much larger than the roughly 70-cow milking herd the Wills had managed for years, get out of the industry entirely or find a creative way to get more profitable.
Neither of the brothers was interested in milking 500 cows, though, and they weren’t ready to give up on the business they’d run together since 1979 — their father and uncle began the dairy in 1952 on a farm the brothers’ great-grandfather bought in 1924. Instead, they decided to investigate building a bottling plant as a way to keep their small dairy viable.
And so, they spent two years studying the matter and visited several other small bottling plants in Pennsylvania and Virginia. By 2011, they’d started shopping for used equipment and applying for the various permits they’d need to open. They broke ground for the new plant, directly in front of their milking parlor, in 2012. In May 2013 — four years and $500,000 after they’d begun considering the idea — the Wills began operation as the only dairy in the state exclusively bottling milk directly from their own farm (another one has since opened, they say).
In addition to 11 family members who help out, the Wills have five part-time employees in the bottling plant.
The Wills now bottle about 1,200 gallons per week, roughly one-third of their total production. The remainder is sold to DFA, where the Wills previously sold all their milk. Because the margins are significantly higher on the milk they bottle, the brothers hope to eventually be bottling all their milk for sale in the region, a total well within the plant’s capacity.
Now, about half the milk bottled at the Mt. Crawford Creamery — available in whole, 2 percent, skim and whole chocolate — is sold at the on-farm store. A gallon of whole milk there costs $4.39. The rest of the Wills’ milk is sold through grocery stores in Harrisonburg and Staunton, and Rockingham, Page and Augusta counties.
While the start has largely been positive, the brothers say they’d hoped to be bottling more of their own milk by this point, eight months into their new business venture. With 200,000 people living within a 200-mile radius of the farm, they had anticipated a bit higher sales than they’ve achieved so far. Though a strong local foods movement has developed in the area, the Wills say it hasn’t yet translated into booming demand for their local milk; difficulty getting Mt. Crawford Creamery milk into local restaurants — even ones that emphasize local foods — has been another point of frustration.
Still, the new arrangement is generating interest. Hardly a day goes by when visitors of some sort —tour groups, school field trips, curious people driving by — don’t drop in to look around. The brothers said the visits are one of the most rewarding parts of their new experiment in small dairy profitability. And though they’d like to hit better sales numbers, the pair remains hopeful that building the bottling plant will turn out to be their ticket to keeping the family dairy in the family for the foreseeable future.
“It’s going pretty good,” said Frank Will. “If we can get our sales up to what we’ve projected, we’ll be in good shape.”