On the morning I call Carl Chaney, owner of Chaney’s Dairy Barn, he politely asks me to hang on a moment, in his charming Southern accent, while he finishes cleaning out the 10-gallon ice cream machine. He’s just made a batch of mint chocolate chip, Oreo and Blue Moon (a kid’s favorite!), and has vanilla and banana left to go. They put 20 real bananas in every batch, he tells me.
When we get down to business, Chaney gives me the rundown of the working dairy farm and agritourism destination. Without having visited yet, I’m compelled to drive 200 miles that day, from northern Alabama to Bowling Green, Kentucky, just to get a scoop of banana ice cream in a homemade waffle cone. Once you learn the story of this magical place, you might feel like jumping behind the wheel, too – especially in light of June being National Dairy Month.
How Chaney’s Dairy Barn Got Started
The farm operation’s humble beginnings date back to 1888, says Chaney, who’s the fourth generation to live and work there. His great-great-grandfather raised tobacco, along with chickens, beef cows, pigs and “just about every kind of animal” you can think of. His own father started the dairy side of the farm in 1940, so 2020 marks their 80th year of milking cows. A lot has changed since then, however.
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At one point, Chaney’s father had about 250 head of Jersey cattle – working with them was his passion, Chaney says. But in 2001, he and his wife, Debra, started thinking about how they could diversify and keep things going after selling off about half the herd in an online sale. They looked at processing milk, and through their travels, saw a lot of people in the dairy businesses making a sweet treat. “Ice cream seemed like the perfect transition from a straight dairy farm into an agritourism business,” Chaney says.
He headed for State College, Pennsylvania, to become a student at Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course, a weeklong class offered every January by the school’s College of Agricultural Sciences. There, he was equipped with the tools to “make ice cream as good as anybody,” he says. In the fall of 2003, he and Debra debuted Chaney’s Dairy Barn to the public for the first time. Last year, they saw about 300,000 people come through the store to enjoy ice cream and experience many other activities hosted at the farm.
What Makes Chaney’s Cows Special
Four years ago, Chaney made a major move to convert to a robotic milking operation. He invested in a Lely Astronaut robot, which is able to milk cows around the clock. Its benefits were two-fold: For one, it freed up time for him and his staff to focus on running the farm and the barn rather than milking all day; and two, it gave visitors the opportunity to watch the milking in action, making it another attraction to the farm.
Today, they offer tickets for self-guided tours, where visitors can ride or walk down to the farm (about 2/10 of a mile) and sit in an air-conditioned barn to watch cows being milked, one at a time, from behind glass. “Some people will stay 15 to 20 minutes; some people will stay an hour,” Chaney says. About 6,500 did the self-guided tour last year, not including the 7,000 children from school groups who came for guided tours.
The automatic milking system is friendly for the farm’s herd of 60 cows, too. They’ll flow in to be milked whenever they wish, averaging about three milkings a day each. So how, exactly, do they know to go in? “As the cow’s udder starts to get full, now she equates going into the robot, getting a bite to eat and having the pressure in her udder relieved,” explains Chaney. There are also fans, a sprinkler and a brush inside the milking barn for cows to rub on whenever they like. “To us, it’s all about cow comfort,” he adds.
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Happy Cows Make Delicious Ice Cream
Chaney’s cows produce an average of 65 to 75 pounds of milk a day, and one of the main uses for that is churning out ice cream. In 2019, they produced 26,000 gallons in dozens of flavors ranging from butter pecan to birthday cake, bourbon crunch, peach and Cow Tracks. They make their own waffle cones, and you can also order over-the-top desserts like brownie or banana splits, or the popular Topsy Sundae (ice cream served in a cup with two fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, chocolate fudge and sprinkles). Chaney says he enjoys at least a couple scoops a day – usually strawberry, his favorite, or a Moo Pie (a chocolate chip cookie baked in a skillet, served hot with a melty scoop on top).
In the last few years, they’ve also expanded the food offerings at the restaurant inside Chaney’s Dairy Barn, giving visitors more savory options to enjoy before dessert. Cold sandwiches like pimento cheese and chicken salad have been on offer since the Barn’s inception, but now, Debra makes lots of amazing soups (such as potato) that people love, Chaney says, and they’re also serving burgers, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and more cooked on the recently installed grill.
What’s Next for Chaney’s Dairy Barn
Last July, the farm started processing its own milk, which is available to purchase at the Dairy Barn as well as about two dozen local grocery stores. Chaney’s daughter, Elizabeth, oversees that operation – including production of their own chocolate milk, which is out-of-this-world, Chaney says.
Also coming later this year is a new custom playground for kids, which will be free to play on (the farm also hosts birthday parties in its nearby pavilion). Families with children of all ages also enjoy coming to the farm’s ice cream and a “moo-vie” events, which started with a few people back in 2004 and have grown to attract as many as 800 people on Friday and Saturday nights. People come with picnic blankets and lounge chairs, sit in the grass and enjoy their favorite ice cream while watching kids’ flicks like “Frozen,” Chaney says.
While COVID-19 has put a hold on plans to reopen these events as soon as they’d like this summer, he’s hopeful that they’ll be able to resume movie nights later this year. “It all comes back to promoting agriculture and showing consumers what we do,” he says.