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The Tennessee Family Farm That’s Reshaping American Dairy Farming

When you take a sip of Cruze Farm's buttermilk, you understand why it kept the farm alive.

Let's start with the ice cream. This is a story about a woman and a farm, about her family and her business. It's part of a story that began before her, and before the ice cream. The story of Cruze Farm Dairy starts with the buttermilk. But the story of Colleen Cruze Bhatti? That starts with the ice cream.

This story was originally published on Eater.com.

Back when Colleen was still a Cruze, back before she met Manjit and dated him and married him and had tiny Amery, she was just a kid scooping ice cream at the indoor farmer's market in Knoxville. Most kids might resent having to work for their parents every afternoon, often seven days a week, but Colleen isn't like most people.

"I love ice cream," Colleen says now, with a huge grin on her face. "Making ice cream was really what got me to thinking, I can do this for a living."

When Colleen went away to college—"away" being about 20 minutes west—she missed the farm, a lot. So she came back after graduation, and then she started taking things over, and now the farm is hers. Colleen is twenty-eight years old and the fifth generation Cruze—but the first woman—to run the farm. And by doing that—and doing it the way she does it—she's quietly remaking the image of a dairy farmer in twenty-first century America. Maybe she's just in time. There aren't many family-run dairy farms left.

When Colleen started running things, a funny thing happened—well, a couple of things. Production increased. So did distribution. The farm rose to national prominence. And then the farm became famous for something beyond just the dairy it produces—it became known for its Farm Girls.

Over the past few years, the Farm Girls—that's what they're called—have become the face of Cruze Farm. I see them all the time, selling milk and ice cream at Knoxville's biggest farmers' markets. They're all girls, teenagers or in their early twenties, outfitted in short-sleeved black gingham dresses tied with red aprons and red kerchiefs. They wouldn't look out of place on a farm in the 1940s. They wouldn't look out of place at a rockabilly bar.

"The dresses they wear are inspired by my grandmother, Louise Cruze, who wore a dress while she milked cows," Colleen writes on the Cruze Farm website. "The head scarves channel Rosie the riveter who told the world ‘we can do it.' The girls wear little make-up and little jewelry to let their natural beauty shine. They make a statement, and it has been heard. We are not just a dairy farm but we are a movement inspiring women all over the world that we can farm."

It is possible—okay, it's probable—that the last sentence there is a bit of an exaggeration. Most of the Farm Girls have no plans to start their own farms. Very few have even studied agriculture. But the inspiration—that's real. And the work—that's real, too. These aren't just costumes the girls wear to scoop ice cream in front of customers at the market. They're wearing the dresses the whole time, every step of making the ice cream, from cow to churn to packaging to delivering it to the freezer shelf.

"I think people are maybe surprised," says McCall Sarrett. She's been the market manager of the farm for over two years, in a dress the whole time. "But I think it's good, because it breaks a stereotype. Why can't women in dresses work on a farm? Why can't women in dresses also milk cows?"

The farm now has six full-time and ten part-time employees (the numbers shrink in the winter), and they have cute, traditionally feminine outfits for every aspect of the work. Gingham or black dresses and red Keds or cowboy boots for market and delivery. Those are topped with lunch lady-style lab coats and wellies for bottling—though even under the hairnets, the kerchiefs are in place.

It wasn't until a few years ago that Earl would even let Colleen help with the buttermilk cultures—there's an old wives tale about a lady's special time of the month mucking things up—but now, Manjit and Earl aside, the farm is run entirely by women.

At this very point in time, in the middle of 2015, Cruze Farm Dairy is a magical string of words in the elite corners of Southern food culture. Their products are used in the finest restaurants in the region, regularly mentioned in the same breath as Benton's ham and Anson Mills grains as exemplars of products made the way things used to be made, lauded and venerated by a food culture that adores the promise of authenticity above all else.

You can't get more authentic than Earl Cruze. Earl — Colleen's dad — is what my mom would call a real card. He's always cutting up, laughing, and flirting with any girl or woman who happens to be present, although he and Colleen's mom Cheri have been happily married for 35 years. He plays right into the twinkle-in-the-eye grandfather type, the kind of guy who's quick to tell you about how buttermilk is a better form of Viagra. Earl has the kind of Southern farmer persona that East Coast journalists eat up like a spoonful of ice cream.

Lots of East Coast journalists come to Earl, because he's one of the few farmers left to talk to. There are just three dairy farms left in Knox County, and 343 in the entire state, and Cruze Farm is one of only four cow dairies in Tennessee with a permit for processing its own milk. "The community I grew up in had many more dairy farms than the whole county's got now," says Earl. Although dairy production has only slightly decreased in terms of output in the United States over the past five decades, the number of farms has fallen from 648,000 operations in 1970 to 45,344 in 2014. In Tennessee, there are other local and regional brands, but their milk comes from a range of farms—still small scale, but larger than Cruze's herd of eighty cows.

"I don't think there's dairy farms here where they milk more than a hundred, two hundred cows," says Manjit. Manjit's a city boy who grew up in Nashville and never would have considered farming before he met Colleen, although he too had ancestors who were dairy farmers, albeit in Punjab, not Tennessee. But he's embraced the change from his old life as a line cook, and says farming is less stressful than working in a restaurant. "Cooking is a young person's profession," he says. "Whereas farming you can grow old in. You don't see a lot of line chefs who that are sixty."

The vast majority of cow dairy produced in America is anything but small-scale. California is the country's largest producer of milk, with the average herd size topping one thousand and the biggest farms up to 15,000. Most of those cows are Holsteins, the picturesque black-and-white breed that produces a staggering volume of milk per head. Cruze raises Jerseys, caramel-colored cows whose milk has a higher fat content—perfect for buttermilk and ice cream—and a different protein structure than Holstein milk, thought to be more easily digestible. This high-quality, high-fat milk started gaining Earl a cult following after he took over the farm from his own father in the early 1980s. Like Colleen, once the farm was his, he set out to reinvent it. His father had geared the farm towards generic milk production, which wasn't what Earl wanted to do. "My grandaddy sold butter and buttermilk out of a horse-drawn wagon," Earl says. "When I come along, I wanted to go back to what my granddaddy did."

So Earl started making buttermilk and non-homogenized milk with the cream on top and then ice cream. And that buttermilk? It put Cruze Farm on the culinary map. It's not fancy, just good buttermilk made in the traditional way. But it is rare: traditional, fermented buttermilk doesn't show up very many places anymore. Local chefs loved it. Earl formed relationships with them, and with markets, and his buttermilk allowed his farm to survive while other small farms around him folded.

When you take a sip, of Cruze Farm's buttermilk, you understand why it kept the farm alive. You can taste the butter and the milk; the thick creaminess lingers on your lips. It's a little tangy. A little sweet. It's not sour. It also has the necessary acidity to make real buttermilk biscuits—it's the whole reason the lauded Southern staple came to be. The lactic acid in buttermilk—the same thing that gives it that tang—is also what makes for truly tender biscuits, breaking down the gluten in the flour. It also contributes to the leavening effect of baking soda, producing tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide that puff up the biscuits sky-high. You know how vinegar and baking soda together will explode? It's the same effect, except in miniature. And much more delicious.

While he was running the farm, Earl was also growing a family. Colleen is the youngest of three siblings, all of whom, like Colleen, grew up scooping ice cream and selling milk seven days a week. But of the three, Colleen is the only one who studied agricultural science at the University of Tennessee and then went to Penn State for a course in ice cream production. When she graduated, she came home to the farm with new ideas.

Her first move was to put UPC codes on all of Cruze Farms products. "If I were running it, we still wouldn't be in those stores," Earl says of the farm. "I used to call myself the non-UPC code dairy." Slapping a barcode on a bottle of buttermilk doesn't sound revolutionary, but that small change meant big growth. It meant Colleen could get the family's products onto the shelves at Whole Foods and a local organic chain, Earthfare. Over the past four years, production has increased to around 2,000 gallons of milk bottled weekly, along with 50 or so gallons of ice cream (more in the summer, less in the winter). Earl retired for a spell, although it didn't stick; now he has his own herd of a dozen cows, part of a raw milk co-op that he sells under the French Broad label. He's happy to let Colleen and Manjit run the family farm.

"I know Colleen's gonna have a good life with it now," Earl says. She has. And that good life has become the farm's brand, a pastoral fantasia of cows and green hills and girls in gingham dresses, all of it with smart, savvy, driven — and yes, beautiful — Colleen at the center.

Reporters tend to get carried away when they're describing Colleen. The New York Times called her "beatific" and Garden and Gun referred to her as "a storybook princess," the kind who "would surprise no one ... if sparrows began circling her head, tying ribbons in her hair."

It's hard to blame them. When you're around Colleen, even for a short while, it's hard to not go overboard. Her personality is something like a force of nature—before you know it, her unassuming smile has swept you off your feet. It's how she wins over reporters. It's how she won over Manjit. "I definitely believe in going after what you like," Colleen says.

Here's where I should mention that I've known Colleen and Manjit for a while, although before reporting this story I had never been out to the farm or their home. I lived in Knoxville until recently, for almost five years. It's a small town. The local coffee shops use Cruze Farm milk for cappuccinos. The best restaurant in town serves a Cruze Farm buttermilk panna cotta.

And the ice cream—oh, the ice cream. Every Saturday from late spring through early fall, Cruze Farm parks a white-sided trailer it calls the Milk Bar downtown at the big farmers' market in the middle of town and sells shoppers servings of milk, ice cream, and buttermilk biscuits. There was one summer a few years back, before they got married, when Manjit cooked Indian food every Saturday and sold it from the truck, and I went almost every week to eat it.

It was during those meals that I got to know Colleen and Manjit. You couldn't really call us friends—more like casual acquaintances—but I've seen their relationship evolve. I'm not the only observer. I watched Colleen and Manjit fall in love, get married, grow their business, and have a child not just during time spent with them at the Knoxville farmer's market, but on Instagram and Facebook, along with their thousands of other followers.

Thank goodness for Facebook and social media, because that's how farms have really got the word out." Colleen says. "Farmers aren't going to pay for advertising. They think that's silly." Colleen's hardly the only farmer posting glossy images of life on the farm; plenty of small farms have cottoned on to the allure of sun-dappled fields, sunrise shots, and (of course) baby animals, to the point where the word "farmstagram" is actually a thing. Cruze Farm's feed is way more than idyllic images of cows. There's the mist rising over the pasture at sunrise. There's baby Amery getting licked by a cow. There's a chicken on the porch.

Yet the Instagram lifestyle fantasy is also in many ways the reality. Knoxville is a mid-sized Southern city like most other mid-sized Southern cities, which is to say it takes maybe twenty minutes in any direction to escape the suburbs and be "in the country." Cruze Farm is way out, down a few winding roads, on the banks of the French Broad River —literally "a farm forever," under conservation easements. It looks exactly like what Colleen's Instagrams depict: rolling hills dappled with sunlight, pale brown cows grazing the fields, a white Victorian farmhouse behind a split-rail fence off a gravel road. The yard is filled with chickens and a couple of strutting peacocks The front porch has rocking chairs with gingham cushions.

But Instagram doesn't catch all the details. Real life is always slightly messier. When I show up one afternoon I see the toys scattered about, the hole in the screen door, the windows propped open because the house isn't air-conditioned. The front door is open, so I walk in while knocking. Colleen's in the middle of bathing Amery in a clawfoot tub. The baby smiles at me, then turns her head shyly, as babies do with people they don't know. Then Colleen just starts talking. We chat over the course of several hours, all while she's juggling the baby, cooking lunch, chatting with her in-laws (who pull up shortly after I arrive), and delegating work to Manjit. Standing in her kitchen, she wears a short-sleeved royal blue empire-waisted dress, barefoot with bright red toenails. At one point she tosses an apron my way and tells me to make the biscuits. It's slightly ridiculous and utterly charming that anyone actually lives like this.

According to those who know her, I might have gotten a view of Colleen's life on a good, reporter-friendly (or perhaps in-law-friendly) day, but it was still real. "It's not a facade at all. It's who they are," says Leigh Cooper of Colleen and Manjit. She's a four-year Cruze Farm veteran, whose family is also longtime friends with the Cruzes. "It's trendy right now, the whole rustic look, but at the same time, it's very much their real life. I think people like to look at it on Instagram, but it's a very hard lifestyle."

Elisabeth Spratt, the dairy manager of Cruze Farm, has a more sanguine view. "Definitely Facebook and Instagram are a highlight reel," she says. That's true of anyone's social media presence, of course. But Colleen is not just presenting her life. She's presenting her farm, and the entire pastoral ideal of farming, in order to keep her business afloat. The Instagram account's bio tells the real story: "Milk the cows, raise babies, bottle the milk, churn ice cream, milk the cows, repeat."

To read more, visit Eater.com.

Photography courtesy of Cruze Farm

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