by Colleen Redman
The motto on Homestead Creamery’s brochure says it all: “The Way Milk Should Taste” Since 2001, the creamery has been producing milk, butter, and ice cream at their Burnt Chimney location and delivering it fresh to the public.
With rocking chairs on the front porch, the creamery’s Farm Market store sits adjacent to its milk processing plant. In the lot in front of the plant, one of the creamery’s four home delivery trucks is parked. Making milk deliveries to homes in Botetourt, Rocky Mount, and Roanoke, the creamery’s milkmen are bringing the old fashioned back into fashion.
Homestead Creamery’s old time charm is appealing, but the underlying success of the company is built on the reputation of its farm fresh milk, the source of all its products. Provided by two nearby farms, each owned by a creamery co-owner, the milk is bottled on site and is typically on store shelves less than 48 hours later. Fresh taste is further assured by the use of glass bottles. Glass doesn’t interfere with the milk’s flavor and because bottles can easily be re-used and recycled, they are an environmentally friendly choice.
Creamery co-owner Donnie Montgomery is a third generation dairy farmer. “Working on the 4th generation,” Montgomery says with a smile, referring to his grandchildren. His sons help run the 300-acre family farm that supports 100 dairy cows and provides half the milk for the creamery. The cows are fed on grass and feed made with corn, alfalfa, and wheat grown on the farm. Creamery milk is free of antibiotics and milk production hormones aren’t used. “I didn’t ever think it was good for my cows,” Montgomery explains.
As a small family farmer, Montgomery knew going into the creamery business that he and his partners would have to find a niche market to compete with larger operations. Today, they wholesale their products to area Krogers and Whole Foods Markets, along with outlets in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Southwest Virginia locations that carry Homestead Creamery products include the Roanoke Natural Food Coop and Sweet Providence Farm in Floyd.
A tour of the processing plant begins with the milk tanker truck. The tanker travels to the nearby farms to pick up milk as needed, “sometimes daily when it’s busy,” says production manager Doug Wray. What makes the plant busy? Wray answers in one word “Eggnog.” The eggnog season starts in mid-October and doesn’t end until late January. Ice cream sells well in the summer, he adds.
School classrooms and other groups touring the creamery can expect to see butter being churned, ice cream being hand scooped into containers, and maybe a vat of chocolate milk being mixed. From the bottle washing machine, clean bottles travel on a conveyer belt to be filled. Butter is packed into antique molds in preparation for packaging.
The creamery milk is pasteurized, as required by law, but minimal heat is used in the process. Standing next to the pasteurization staging station, Wray lists their milk product line; homogenized (which keeps the cream from rising to the top) and un-homogenized whole milk, 2% milk, flavored milks (chocolate and strawberry), buttermilk, half and half, heavy cream, eggnog, and boiled custard. “With six full time plant employees, production is hands-on, an approach that allows for good quality and cleanliness,” Wray says.
Inside the Farm Market, customers come and go. Some are greeted by name. A woman carrying a metal basket of empty milk bottles to be returned swings open the front door. Farm Market employee Suzanna Bowman rings up a gallon of milk for a customer who has brought her own cloth bag to carry it home in. Later, a man deliberates over which ice cream flavor to try.
Local goods filling basket bins and lining the Farm Market shelves include apple butter, sauces, candies, eggs, baked goods, fresh produce, beef, pork, jams, jellies and pickles. The store also sells coffee, cookbooks, homemade noodles, and Virginia maple syrup.
In the corner of the market by a large sunny window, Homestead Creamery T-shirts are displayed. A bright yellow one, hanging front and center, announces ‘The Milkman is Back.’ Below the design of a spotted Holstein wearing a matching red cap and bowtie, a printed tagline on the shirt sums up the creamery’s ‘from cow to consumer’ mission – “Delivering From Our Home to Yours”.