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Virginia Tech serving local milk on campus
[February 03, 2013]

Virginia Tech serving local milk on campus

BLACKSBURG, Feb 03, 2013 (The Roanoke Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- There are Hokie mugs. And Hokie sweatshirts. There have even been Hokie edition sport utility vehicles.

But Hokie cows and Hokie milk Well, they aren't bred to be maroon and orange. In fact, they are mostly black-and-white Holsteins, with a few brown Jerseys mixed in, and they roam the campus fields along U.S. 460 and Southgate Drive.

Now through a partnership with the Virginia Department of Corrections, some of that milk can now be served to Tech students at Dietrick Hall's D2 food court.

For decades, the more than 1,800 gallons a day of milk Tech's dairy herd produces has been sold to a dairy cooperative. But no more.

The Hokie milk project is part of Tech's initiative to serve foods on campus that have been produced within a 250-mile radius. The project stems from the university's overall sustainability program, said Rial Tombes, university sustainability coordinator.

Local foods is a growing trend around the country, and more and more students are looking to their universities to provide those options on campus. Over the past two years, dining services has offered some meat produced on campus, and now milk has been added to the list.

"It's important to be connected to your milk," said Erica Largen, a Tech senior and president of the campus Environmental Coalition. "Milk was one of the last foods to be globalized." This semester, milk once more became a local food.

Today about 60 percent of the bulk milk served in D2 is from Hokie cows, Dietrick Hall food production manager Amanda Snediker said.

Prepackaged milk in pints and half-gallons served elsewhere on campus is purchased through a separate commercial contract with PET, dining services director Ted Faulkner said.

Faulkner had been looking for a way to expand the dining services' local foods initiatives into Hokie dairy products but hadn't been successful.

For the past couple of years, the dining operation has purchased meat from the college of agriculture's pork and beef research and education programs. After a newspaper story about the Hokie meat project was published, Faulkner said, Tech's dairy facility manager, Shane Brannock, contacted dining services about doing something similar with the university's milk.

In 2012, Tech's dairy sold about $1 million worth of milk produced by its herd of more than 500 dairy cattle. That revenue covers about 90 percent of the operating costs of the dairy, which exists to provide animals for animal science research and teaching, agriculture college spokesman Zeke Barlow wrote in an email.

Alan Grant, dean of the agriculture college, calls these sales programs salvage operations, and they are common at universities across the country with agriculture programs.

The milk has always been sold, Brannock said. But it's been more years than anyone remembers that milk produced at Tech was served to students. And there was a big hurdle to cross before the raw milk produced at the dairy could be served in the dining hall.

Raw milk, which can harbor a number of disease-causing pathogens, cannot be served to the public under health codes. It must be pasteurized for safety and processed and packaged by fat content, from skim to whole. Tech doesn't own a creamery, and didn't want to build one.

To make the idea of Hokie milk for Hokies work, the university had to find a partner that would purchase raw milk from the agriculture college, process it and then sell it to dining services.

Luckily, Brannock had what he thought was the perfect partner in mind -- his old employer James River Agribusiness, a project of the state's department of corrections.

"They were as eager to help us as we were eager to work with them," Snediker said.

In fact, the manager of James River Agribusiness is a Tech alum with a degree in animal science.

For three decades William Gillette has managed the state's more than 30 prison farm operations scattered across the state. Those operations produce vegetables, meats and milk products, mostly for use within the prison and jail systems.

The dairy operation at what has been known for more than a century as "The State Farm" prison and agricultural complex along the James River west of Richmond was recently granted a license to produce grade A dairy products at its creamery. That license allows the corrections department to sell some of the about 1 million gallons of milk produced annually by its dairy to clients outside the corrections system, including to universities.

Like all other farm businesses run by the corrections department, Gillette said the creamery employs inmates to both reduce the taxpayer's bill for corrections, and to give those offenders work experience that can help them re-enter society when their debt to the commonwealth is paid.

Revenue from the sales of milk to Tech supports the corrections department's dairy operation. And the extra milk brought in from Tech's dairy herd supplements the production of the 140 dairy cows at the James River facility.

The partnership "saved the corrections department from having to spend capital money to expand our own operation" to serve new customers, Gillette said. "Governments are looking for savings wherever they can. I think it's a great relationship." By July 1, 2012, Tech was selling all its milk to the prison system. Dining services began buying it under a separate agreement with corrections in January. It was served to students for the first time on Jan. 22, Snediker said.

Dining services buys three different bulk milk products -- 1 percent chocolate milk, skim milk and whole milk -- in 5-gallon packages that fit into a refrigerated dispenser that students can return to as often as they like.

So far, D2 has purchased up to 140 gallons a week at a cost of about $400, according to figures provided by Snediker.

The chocolate milk, made from a recipe developed by Tech and mixed at the James River facility, is the most popular so far.

Snediker said students drink it at a rate of up to 60 gallons a week.

___ (c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) Visit The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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