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The milking herd at Richlands Dairy Farm in Blackstone, Virignia, are finished with the morning milking and are enjoying their mid-morning meal.

BLACKSTONE, Va. — The 550-acre tract of farmland that is now home to Richlands Dairy in Dinwiddie County has been in the Jones family since the 1700s. It was worked primarily for tobacco until 1952, when Ray “Grandpa” Jones returned to the home of his birth and began to build a dairy operation with his new bride. According to family history, Grandpa Jones purchased a single Jersey dairy cow and took turns milking and taking care of the cow with a neighbor.

With that, Richlands Dairy was born. Since its humble beginning nearly 70 years ago, three generations of the Jones family have — and still do — work every day to make sure that Richlands Dairy produces the best dairy products possible.

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Coley Jones Drinkwater and her father, Hugh Jones with one of the new signs that will be mounted on the outside of their new Creamery. Hugh could not resist sampling the latest batch of chocolate ice cream that was whipped up the day before.

The Jones family is about much more than the daily grind of running a dairy that currently milks and cares for about 140 Holstein cows out of a herd of 600. They also maintain a busy extracurricular schedule with schools in and out of the area, taking time to host educational, farm day field trips for students, some of whom might otherwise never step onto a farm, or come eye-to-eye with a cow.

They also host fall festivals, farm-to-table meals held on the farm, a pumpkin patch to pick from in season, and regular tours of the dairy that give visitors a first-hand experience of the milk production process and how the cattle are cared for.

Today, Richlands Dairy stands out as one of only three dairies that are still in operation in the area.

It just so happens that one of the other dairy owners is a relative — a cousin. Robert “Bobby” Jones owns and operates Poor House Dairy in neighboring Prince Edward County.

The family said they work hard within the community to break down the less than favorable stigma that is associated with the dairy industry as a whole, particularly the manner in which the milking herd is treated.

Richlands Dairy stands on a reputation of a job well done and a policy of total transparency about how the job gets done.

The Richlands slogan is: “Honest to Goodness Dairy.”

For Coley Jones Drinkwater, the owner and operator of Richlands Dairy today, the words go straight to the heart of what they do on the farm every day. Drinkwater is the granddaughter of Ray Jones, and just one of many family members that work the farm daily.

The latest and boldest move to be made at Richlands has been the recent construction of a fully operational creamery right on the farm next to the dairy. The nearly $2 million creamery, set to open later this month, will manufacture its own brand of milk, butter, ice cream and cream for sale to the public. The staff is already making full batches of ice cream, working to perfect the flavors to be sold.

The Jones family considered the creamery as an opportunity to face down the stressed dairy market by diversifying, rather than following the path so many family dairies have taken lately by closing their operations.

“The dairy market is tough right now. It has been for some time,” Drinkwater said. “I knew we were going to have to do something, but we couldn’t just go out of business. We have a lot of our family living and working here, and what would we do with our cattle? It just wasn’t an option.”

“We have put all in on the success of the creamery,” she said. “It will work; it has to work.”

The Jones family had the true limits of their resilience tested last week. The severe storm system that passed through central Virginia on March 29 tore straight through Richlands Dairy Farm. Several of the barns and outbuildings lost their roof in the intense winds.

The most devastating blow was the total loss of the huge steel and fabric shade barn that the milking herd uses to stay cool and relaxed between milkings.

Hugh Jones, Coley’s father, was in the barn with the herd just minutes before the barn crumpled to the ground.

“I had just come out five minutes before it came down,” he said. “There were at least a hundred head in the barn when it happened. I cannot for the life of me figure out how none of them were hurt. If I had waited just a few more minutes, there’s no telling.”

“Those barns are designed so that the fabric roof will tear in a strong wind so the structure will remain standing, Drinkwater explained. “The fabric didn’t tear at all. The whole building just tore out of the concrete and went over.”

The community rallied to help Richlands Dairy recover almost immediately.

The loss of the shade barn, however, is a serious blow to the daily dairy operation.

“The creamery has been a bit overwhelming, but not scary,” Drinkwater said looking toward the barn. “But now, with the barn down, it’s all terrifying. The most ironic thing is that we just made the last payment on that barn last month.”

Richlands is currently working with their insurance company over the damages.

U.S. dairy farmers continue to dig for solid footing as they struggle to climb back up the steep and unpredictable slope of industry decline. The declining slope consists of a range of factors that together have had a devastating effect on the nation’s milk producers.

Records indicate that the group within the industry suffering the worst damage and in greatest numbers are farmers that work smaller sized dairy production facilities. The dairies, many of them family owned and operated, have histories that are hundreds of years old.

Nevertheless, there has been a slow but steady market shift in favor of consolidating to larger, more efficient dairy operations able to supply equally large milk processing plants.

According to USDA data, there were 650,000 dairies operating in the U.S. in 1970. Today, there are less than 45,000 in operation.

Current market trends do not look to help small producers in the future.

The shift to non-dairy “milks” has hit the dairy industry hard as well. So much so, in fact, that the dairy industry has asked that “milk” not be used in labelling the products.

Coupled with the uncertainties of U.S. international trade, especially with our closest trade partners, Mexico and Canada, the future looks grim for smaller dairy producers.

By diversifying and reaching into other markets, Richlands Dairy said it is one of the best efforts to stay afloat today.

Noel Oliver is a freelance writer in southern Virginia.