Spilled milk: Creamery goes udder up

Skim, fat-free, lactose-free, soy, rice­ with all the "in" milk variations and alternatives available nowadays, I wouldn't be surprised if the disappearance of Shenville Creamery's old-fashioned, glass-bottled whole milk escaped your notice.

But by early February, a few weeks after the Timberville, Virginia-based farm owned by Leon and Ida Heatwole closed, the dairy products (milk, cream, butter) that had been steadily building a following since Shenville's launch in 2000 had entirely vanished from the fridges of many Charlottesville markets.

My messenger was a little note taped to the register at Rebecca's Natural Food. A visit to the shenville.com website filled me in on the main reason for the creamery's seemingly sudden January 30 closure: bankruptcy.

As a heartbroken but optimistic Ida explained to Dish recently, she and her husband, dairy farmers for over 20 years, "got into a financial bind they just couldn't get out of"­ borrowing hundreds of thousands from Farm Credit for such things as a new well, two new 5,000-sq.-ft. buildings for production and retail, and other inspection-related alterations.

Sales were not the problem. In fact, thanks to Leon's marketing efforts, Shenville products were available from Williamsburg to Harrisonburg, and from big (D.C.) to little Washington (VA). The Heatwoles were just starting to sell their ice creams to high-end restaurants, and they were also on the verge of a distributing deal with Harris Teeter in the D.C. area.

On February 27-28, the creamery was sold piecemeal at auction. Because no serious investors showed up, almost everything was bought back by Farm Credit-­ thus Shenville as a business is still for sale. There will be a final settlement on March 18, and Ida says a new owner could still buy the business and perhaps hire the Heatwoles to run it.

"People really loved our products, but we were so busy scrambling to satisfy the lenders that we had less time to actually manage the business," Ida says. Apparently several potential buyers approached the Heatwoles as soon as they heard mention of Chapter 11-­ "Where were all these people on auction day?" Ida asks.

Once farm-rich, Virginia seems to be thinning into a skim state. Cici Williamson, a food and travel writer who featured Shenville Creamery in her book, The Best of Virginia Farms Cookbook and Tour Book , was shocked– but perhaps not totally surprised– to hear about the creamery going udder-up.

"One of the things wrong with America is obvious: We have Enron executives bilking their own employees and shareholders of billions– while honest, hard-working farmers such as the Heatwoles, are forced out of business because of high interest payments," she says.

Williamson calculates that Virginia has lost half of its farms in the past 40 years­ from 98,000 in 1960 to 49,000 today. Besides the obvious threats posed by land-hungry commercial and housing developments, it's simply getting harder and harder for farmers to earn a living.

"We pay farmers three cents for the wheat to make a loaf of bread, and the plastic bag costs three cents. What I'd like to know is, when a loaf of bread at the supermarket cost $1 or $2, who's making all that profit? Can't we return some of it to the farmer?" Williamson asks.

If only the answer were as simple and as comforting as a big glass of cold milk.



Speaking of farmland and new homes, readers residing in growing Crozet will be happy to hear that the new, family-friendly Southwestern-Mexican eatery Cocina del Sol should be open by early April.

Though I originally reported that Myrna Montiel would be the primary owner-chef, the news is she'll actually be assisting La Cocina's creator, chef-owner Alex Montiel. Formerly executive chef at The Boar's Head Inn (he left in January), Montiel, a Crozet resident, is now devoting his many talents (I found him building a taco bar) to Cocina and to his own versatile catering business.

After working in hotels for years (he opened seven Ritz Carltons), Montiel is enjoying both the quiet and the independence that come with running his own restaurant in Crozet. "Instead of asking for approval, I can change directions in the blink of an eye now, and I have much more time for my family," he says. "I feel like I'm back to life".

A Shenville Creamery product, gone from shelves