Walnut Hill Farm Creamery, located in Kearneysville, is beginning its 35th year of operation, and remains the only cow dairy in West Virginia that milks, pasteurizes, and then bottles its own milk.
Established in 1983 by Mark and Donna Butcher, Walnut Hill features registered Holstein and Brown Swiss Cattle.
“Both my grandparents were farmers; my grandfather on my mother’s side was a big influence on me,” said Mark. “He was a beef farmer. I liked tagging along with him as a kid—and then I got a job on a dairy farm in the mid-seventies. A lot of people were still milking in buckets back then—they had containers, but you would dump the buckets in there.”
Butcher was 12 when he got that first job in the evenings carrying milk, and something about it just clicked for him. “I loved it. So I worked for him and went through high school working and milking, and then decided I was going to college.”
When Butcher set off for college, an agriculture degree was a more popular avenue than a dairy science degree—so that’s the route he took. “I went and got my Ag degree, and when I got out, I worked on the railroad for a bit,” he explained. “I had some money from that milking job, so I bought a bunch of beef calves and raised them. That was my first set of cows.”
He also had his eye on a chunk of land in Jefferson County that he knew was going to be available soon. “Eventually, and with some help from my father, we ended up getting it. I’ve been here ever since.”
That chunk of land became Walnut Hill Farm Creamery, and Butcher and his family started doing something special. Their milk is non-homogenized and non-GMO—nothing is added or removed. There’s even cream on top.
“We are the only cow dairy in the state of West Virginia that vat-pasteurizes milk (lower temperature and longer time),” he pointed out. “With this style of pasteurization, bacteria are killed but beneficial enzymes remain. We also do not homogenize the milk, so it’s referred to as CreamLine Whole Milk.”
Butcher explained that his family’s system for processing the milk often makes it more easily digested, according to his customers.
Dairy farming is not as prevalent in Jefferson County as it once was. “I was on the farm bureau board in the county, probably 15 years ago—me and the neighbor up on the hill,” said Butcher. “It seemed like we were on that board forever. Well, one year, we were shown a study. In 1979, the year I graduated from Jefferson High, there were one hundred and twelve dairy farms in Jefferson County—just dairy farms. I could believe it; I remember when I was a kid—everyone milked cows. Not huge herds, but smaller groups. And by the year 2000, there was a little over twenty farms left. Then in 2010, I think there was only eleven. Right now, there’s just eight.”
However, Jefferson ranks first out of 55 counties for the dollar value of milk produced, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Butcher believes the key to his success is the smaller nature of their operation.
“With the creamery, we have an opportunity to milk a small number of cows and direct-market our milk, versus milking a large number of cows for shipment to a cooperative.”
He also noted, “… for smaller farm operations, you need to think outside of the box. What may have worked in the past may not work well now. Direct marketing to the consumer is one way for smaller farms to survive.”
How to Get It
Walnut Hill has a thriving direct-market business, in which they make weekly deliveries directly to customers’ homes.
“We home deliver the milk in Jefferson and South Berkeley Counties on Tuesday evenings,” said Butcher, “and delivery to homes in Loudoun County is on Sunday mornings.”
A number of local stores also sell the Walnut Hill product, including Bushel & Peck in Charles Town, Handi-Stop in Tuscawilla Hills, and Pownall’s Bistro in Martinsburg.
In addition to selling directly to consumers, Walnut Hill also provides milk to restaurants in the Eastern Panhandle. Mad Monks Coffee Shop and Sugar Whipped Bakery, both of Charles Town, Hillbrook Inn in Summit Point, and Martinsburg’s Mugs and Muffins all use milk from the farm in their offerings.
While the Butchers don’t have plans to expand their product line at the moment, the locations to which they deliver may increase as demand and interest in the milk grows.
An interesting side note: Butcher’s name may be familiar to many in the community, above and beyond his work in the agricultural field. The Butcher Center, on Shepherd University’s campus, is named for his father, Dr. James A. Butcher, who served as the twelfth president of Shepherd University (then-College) from 1968 through 1988. Dr. Butcher and his wife are from central West Virginia and moved to Jefferson County in the early 1960s.
According to Shepherd University by Dorothy E. Hively, Dr. Butcher, a former assistant superintendent of schools in Webster County, taught elementary education at Shepherd, served as director of teacher education, and then became the school’s president until his retirement in 1988.
“I was eight years old when he was appointed Shepherd College president,” remembered Butcher—pointing out that he grew up around the school’s campus, which is now part of the area to which his farm supplies milk.
Ultimately, he admits that the economics of farming is tough, and a lot of local farmers are waiting for cow prices to come back up so they can sell off. “You’ll never get rich doing it, and we know that. You’re not going to take vacations. It’s a different lifestyle than most people lead. But it’s something we truly love to do.”
Update (August 2019) Walnut Hill Farm announced it has closed its creamery operation, citing a combination of production cost increases and inconsistent sales.By H.S. Leigh Koonce