WARRENTON, Va. — The Piedmont Environmental Council has found an innovative way to connect the milk produced at Remington’s Cool Lawn Farm, Fauquier County’s largest dairy farm, with two food pantries in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties. With a matching gift from the PATH Foundation and contributions from private donors, PEC has raised over $15,000 to philanthropically support Fauquier Community Food Bank and Rappahannock Pantry’s acquisition of milk from local farms. “That is more than enough to provide at least 250 gallons of milk weekly for the next two months, which is the initially-estimated need based on our conversations with the food banks. Our donors are very supportive of this effort and we stand ready to extend our commitment if the crisis demands,” said Matt Coyle, PEC Buy Fresh Buy Local coordinator. “We hope this effort will be a successful pilot program that can be replicated with other dairy farms and food pantries throughout the region.”
Cool Lawn Farm has been a productive dairy operation since 1970. Farm owners Ken Smith and his son, Ben, permanently protected the beauty and agricultural potential of the land through Fauquier County’s Purchase of Development Rights Program. In 2010, Ken Smith reinvested the money they received from the conservation easement into starting Moo Thru Ice Cream in Remington, which is operated by his wife, Pam, and daughter, Taylor. The coronavirus pandemic interrupted operations quite suddenly and remarkably.
“Before the shut-down, about 30 to 40 percent of our total milk production was processed and distributed to school-based nutrition programs in and around Virginia Beach, Newport News, and Norfolk. But when schools shut down in March, we found ourselves without a viable avenue to sell and distribute that milk. On top of that, Moo Thru has lost about 30 to 40 percent of its business as well,” Smith said, with people staying home and gatherings largely halted.
Meanwhile, “through our work on local food, PEC has learned that certain types of food and nutrition items have been in very short supply in our local food pantries during this crisis, despite being produced in our own community. In no case has this been more glaring than in milk production,” Coyle said. “We saw an opportunity, and felt a responsibility, to step in to support local producers while helping the food insecure through two local food pantries.”
The first dairy delivery of the initiative is scheduled for between 8 – 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 14 at Fauquier Community Food Bank and Thrift Store, 249 E. Shirley Avenue in Warrenton. The pantry will receive
about 150 gallons of milk, with Rappahannock Food Pantry will be on site to collect about 50 gallons of milk. The current plan is for deliveries to take place weekly for at least the next two months. PEC is learning that other food banks need milk as well, and are exploring the possibility of replicating or adapting the effort in Albemarle County and other areas of the northern Piedmont region.
“The coronavirus pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our food supply chain and illustrates the incredible value of strong, sustainable local food systems, not only for times like these, but also after the current crisis passes when consumers realize they want access to more nutritious and more locally-produced food,” Coyle said.
“This is a community solution to a systemic problem, and while we a more holistic solution in the long run, we hope this effort to connect local farms to local food supply needs will be a bridge to systemic change,” said PEC President Chris Miller.
“It is not a permanent solution for PEC to be in the middle of local food sourcing on a regular basis, but it’s a testament of our place in the community that we could help make this difference during this crisis. Because PEC has long-term relationships with landowners and farmers, supports food banks and other charities, and is part of the community service sector in each county, we were able to put this together in a week,” Miller said. “Hopefully, this is a catalyst to a more lasting structure to provide local dairy to meet local needs.”
Smith said that when he moved to Fauquier County, there were 127 dairy farms. Today, there are fewer than a dozen; Culpeper has only four. Cool Lawn Farm is the largest dairy farm north of Lynchburg and east of the Blue Ridge. “Supporting working farms is part of our mission at PEC, and this effort today not only helps our local farm economy, but also provides healthy, farm-fresh food to the local community through our existing food pantries. Small, family-owned dairy farms are already operating on the edge of survival due to falling milk prices and competition with milk alternatives as well as commercial-scale dairy operations. Absent innovative approaches to the supply-chain issues revealed during the pandemic, many will not make it through this period. We hope this shift to supply local food pantries is a real difference-maker,” Coyle said.
“This effort by PEC is a great help to the community and to the people who relied on the school system to feed their children, in a lot of cases, three times a day. We’re happy that we are able to help the Fauquier County community in this way. We’re now one of the last dairy farmers left in the county, and programs like these are really beneficial to all dairy producers, getting more of our milk out to the community, on the shelves and to those who can’t afford it.” Smith said.
While current contributions support the milk needs of these two food pantries for the next two months, PEC is measuring demand and reaching out to food pantries and dairy farms in other counties. A spike or identification of an unmet need will provide opportunity for others to support the effort. Interested community members should contact PEC’s Development Advisor, Doug Larson, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-347-2334, x7004.
–Matt Coyle, Piedmont Environmental Council