Where does your milk come from?


Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative provides locally sourced milk


In late April, a large cab tractor rushes through a bright Shenandoah Valley field of spring rye grass leaving a swath of yellow-hued stubble—already harvesting good fresh grain that feeds the cows who nourish the children as the farmer in turn stewards the land. The wheel of life.

On a dairy farm, all must pitch in, often in the wee hours of the night or early morning, to keep up with the relentless three-times-a-day milking schedule. Living finally caught up with farmer Randy Inman of Mt. Crawford after three tries in a busy week where impending rain (with turkey litter needing to be spread beforehand), preparing a Powerpoint for a farm cooperative meeting, and milking left Inman yawning—and apologizing—on a busy Friday morning.


The Inmans first moved from the Catskills in New York to the Shenandoah Valley in 1995 and farmed here for four years on MarBil Farms near Mt. Crawford, named for Randy’s parents, Mary and Bill Inman. Then Randy’s father’s health deteriorated, and Randy and his wife, Lynette, moved back to New York. After his father died in 2002, the Inmans moved back to the Valley where their daughter Karen and husband Jason Hewitt are now key management partners in their farm. Son Brian recently joined the farm upon his wife Emma’s graduation from vet school. He is assisting with herd management, and she is working at a local small animal clinic. Their oldest daughter Kendra and husband Matthew Lamb are dairying in western New York. Mary (mother) resides near the home farm in upstate New York surrounded by family.

Milk in all its forms is a basic food for many. Pour it on a bowl of fresh granola. Enjoy an ice cream cone, a wedge of cheese, a container of yogurt.

But milk of course doesn’t come from a bottle or factory but from a living creature. How those mammals are raised and their milk is handled matters in terms of the health of the milk your children drink just days later. How animals and waste are controlled matters in taking care of the land and the streams running through.

Inman is one of many farmers who care greatly about such things. “Our primary goal is to preserve small family farms for generations to come,” notes Inman in talking about the relatively new Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative a group of area farmers formed last August. Some of his own grandchildren are growing up on the farm.

Randy Inman, left, with his grandson and son-in-law Jason Hewitt and son Brian Inman on their farm. photo provided

Along the way, they are improving milk production where anyone in the Shenandoah Valley can have the opportunity to meet the farmers and the cows that turn out the milk and milk products we drink and use.

Currently there are 21 farmers in the cooperative with 14 more families in line to join, which will bring the total to 35. Most of the farms are within a 10 mile radius of Harrisonburg.

Five Valley dairy farmers were key organizers for the cooperative including David Eberly, Dennis Trissel, Lynwood Shank, Dennis Koogler and Randy Inman.

The cooperative purchased a milk processing plant in Hagerstown, Md. (formerly owned by Unilever) in August of 2013 and opened just six months later for operations February 26, 2014.

Before this opportunity, local farmers sent their milk for processing and distribution to a variety of different companies. Several of them dreamed of coming together to “take control of the product from farm to consumer,” according to Inman, president of the board for Valley Pride LLC, the official company behind the cooperative. “We want to be able to have that connection so people can meet and know the farmers and cows where their milk comes from,” he explained.

All of the farms in the cooperative operate as small family farms; the Inman farm is one of the larger with some 150 acres owned and another 300 rented to supply hay, corn and rye as feed for the dairy cows. So the farmers most often grow most of the food locally that feeds the cows which produce the milk.

Along the way, they are improving milk production where anyone in the Shenandoah Valley can have the opportunity to meet the farmers and the cows that turn out the milk and milk products we drink and use.

“This is a high quality product—people really seem to like the flavor, whether it is white or flavored with chocolate,” says Inman.

The milk tastes better, according to Inman because of the low temperature the processing plant uses for pasteurization. “Higher temperatures can make a chalky flavor,” he says. With low fat milk products, other companies add powder to the milk for better flavor, which often turns the milk a bluish color.

In addition, P.I. (preliminary incubation count) and somatic cells (both are measures of bacteria) are very low for the milk that comes to the cooperative, which is an indicator of the health of the animals. “Overall our standards are set higher for our milk than other companies or required by law,” states Inman. When these counts are low, it also helps lengthen the life of the milk. So not only does the milk taste better, it lasts longer—often a good seven days past “sell date,” according to the company.

One of the Inman grandchildren enjoys getting up close with a calf. photo provided

The cooperative hopes to encourage farm visits and tours by school children and interested groups to “meet the farmers” and animals.

Their milk or ice cream, as of this writing, is in 254 stores, restaurants or ice cream shops within a 150 mile radius of the Hagerstown processing plant—a number which is growing every week. It takes time to get into larger chain stores like Food Lion and Wal-Mart because of needing to apply for vendor numbers, and chains have varying contract renewal dates. Local larger grocery stores selling Shenandoah Family Farms brand milk are Red Front in Harrisonburg and Bridgewater Grocery. Since the Unliver plant was previously set up to produce ice cream, the cooperative first offered soft serve ice cream, and launched “hard serve” ice cream (boxed) in May. They are making the mix used by Kline’s Ice Cream for the popular Harrisonburg treat. A good place to keep up with new stores selling the products is on the company’s Facebook page, “Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative.”

With the plant in Hagerstown, “we are strategically positioned to serve bigger population areas around northern Virginia and D.C./Baltimore,” noted Inman. The close proximity will give customers assurance of fresh dairy products. The plant hopes to include novelty ice cream bars, butter and cultured products along with a variety of fluid milk (various percentages of fat content) and cream.

The cooperative wants to assure good farm management practices for environmental sustainability, and encourages the farmers to be involved in the community through church and volunteer activities which makes for an even busier life. But trade his home-based enterprise with spouses, children and grandchildren all helping out? Not likely.

Melodie Davis, national editor of Living, is the mother of three young adult daughters, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, Va. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.


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