When Gary Conner began operating his Stuarts Draft dairy farm - MainStreet Farmstead, in the late 1970s, the family farm was as much an integral part of the Augusta County community as it ever was.
For generations, agriculture has been the lifeblood of the central Valley. In many ways, small farms — from beef and dairy, to corn and turkey — were the backbone of the region since Europeans first trekked over the Blue Ridge and spotted the lush, green Valley. It’s a story that was repeated throughout Virginia, and much of the nation, from the earliest settlements.
Today, milk remains one of the top agricultural products in Virginia, ranking third in 2014 with $478 million in cash receipts compared to $714 million for beef cattle. Virginia’s dairy sector ranked 24th among U.S. states in terms of total milk production. Dairy farming operations can be found throughout the commonwealth, but tend to be concentrated in the Shenandoah Valley with Rockingham County leading production at 543.2 million pounds. Augusta County is ranked fourth behind Franklin and Pittsylvania Counties, producing 144.1 million pounds.
But Conner has seen tremendous change in his nearly 50 years as a farmer. Like elsewhere in the United States, Virginia’s dairy farm sector has undergone profound change and restructuring in recent decades. “In the late 1970s, there were something like 40 dairy farms just in this area,” Conner said. “Now there are four.” The number of farms raising dairy cattle has dwindled while average cowherds on the remaining farms have more than doubled in size over the last thirty years. Milk cow inventories are now roughly half of what they were in 1970, but increased farm economies of scale, improved cattle breeding, health and nutrition, and increased utilization of capital and advanced technology have doubled milk productivity per cow. As a result, there has been little overall change in Virginia milk production levels. And price fluctuations — not to mention an overall drop in milk prices — have become more severe and less predictable over the years, particularly for dairy farmers. Even with the support of the tight-knit farming community — friends, fellow farmers, Augusta Cooperative Farm Bureau, where he’s been a feed customer every year since 1970 — it was getting tougher to make ends meet.
A few years ago, Conner realized he had to do something if he was to keep his dairy operation viable. Selling the farm was not an option he wanted to envision. He and his family — he has nine children, two sons and seven daughters — had worked the land for decades. One of his sons, Gary Jr., works full-time with him on the farm and his other kids still help out when needed. The family takes pride in not only the business, but the responsible way in which they’ve run it. Their Holsteins, which are milked twice a day, are all home raised. The animal’s nutrition, along with air and water quality are key to the dairy, and in many ways are what sets them apart.
But with the market forces putting more pressure on him every year, Conner knew he had to do something to keep the farm going. The answer? Cheese. He started building the farm’s cheese operation in 2012 and received a production license the following year. And in the four years since, the cheese side of the business has continued to grow, giving Conner and his family another source of income with a more diverse product line. Diversification among dairy farms, with the inclusion of cheese making, is a growing niche throughout Virginia. “These value-added products — cheese and also drinkable yogurt — are really the keys for us,” Conner said. All of the farm’s cheese is made on site, with the same love and care the family has put into its Grade A milk the last 40 years. The secret, Conner said, is not only a finely tuned operation where hygiene, cow health and quality are the top priorities, but also a little thing called time. Aging the cheese takes patience — but its worth it in the end. Conner likes to say he lets the cheese tell him when it’s done — not the other way around.
That dedication has paid off. Conner’s cheese, which includes various styles of cheddar — from Shenandoah peaks and jalapeno cheddar block cheese, to chipotle and garlic and chives “cheese clouds” — is sold at a growing number of central Valley locales, more than 100 in all. The Cheese Shop, Mt Crawford Creamery, and local vineyards and breweries are just a few of the places the family’s cheese, as well as their drinkable yogurt, is available. Families are also welcome to stop by the MainStreet Farmstead just outside of Stuarts Draft (548 Draft Ave) and purchase their cheese and milk products. But you won’t find Gary behind the cash register, he is busy making cheese behind the glass, watching his customers pay for their goods on the “honor system”. While Conner says his “joints ache a little bit” more than they used to, he wouldn’t give up being a farmer for anything. “I love being out in the open — whether it’s in the sun or the snow or rain or cold — just being out there and working, that’s what it’s about for me,” he says. Next to his family, he says, his animals are his number one priority. “Every animal that’s on the farm, I’ve been there when they were born, or was there within an hour,” he said. “All the farmers I know, their animals are number one.” Conner wishes more young people had the opportunity to get into farming. Increasingly today, fewer kids actually know where their food comes from. “It’s so hard for kids to just go and visit a farm nowadays with all the regulations and rules farms have to follow,” he said. “And there are so few family farms left that will do that.”
Conner believes most folks in the central Valley and elsewhere want to help their local farmers by buying local produce, dairy and meats. As proud as he is of being a farmer and working the land, one thing above all else fills him with pride and reminds him of the importance of what he does. “When someone thanks me for being a farmer,” he says. “That means everything.”
Augusta Cooperative is proud to service MainStreet Farmstead for over 47 years. On behalf of Augusta Cooperative, in celebration of June Dairy Month, we want to extend a special thank you to the Conner family for their dedication to the dairy industry.