clock menu more-arrow no yes
Meghan McCarron

Filed under:

How to Save the Family Farm in the 21st Century

Cruze Farm in Tennessee is reshaping American dairy farming, one gingham dress at a time

L

et'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.

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.

Young calf roaming free on dairy farm.

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.

"Why can't women in dresses work on a farm? Why can't women in dresses also milk cows?"

"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.


A

t 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."

Buttermilk put Cruze Farm on the culinary map. Traditional, fermented buttermilk doesn't show up very many places anymore.

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.


T

hank 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."

The grinding repetition of dairy farming is just as much a reality as cooking biscuits barefoot in a dress.

The last item on the list is no joke. The grinding repetition of dairy farming is just as much a reality as cooking biscuits barefoot in a dress. "We almost do the same thing every day, every week," Colleen says. The cows must be milked, every day, twice a day, no matter what—once at 7 a.m., once around 6 p.m. On Mondays, the milk is bottled. Tuesdays it's delivered. Wednesdays it's pasteurized, and there's a market. Thursdays it's bottled, and there's a market. Fridays it's delivered. Saturdays are the big market days. Sundays back to pasteurization.

You can't take a day off on a dairy farm. You can't take a vacation.  "It can start to feel like a hamster wheel," Manjit says. But managing the grind is all about the story you tell. "If you have a good attitude, it's like these cows are pushing you to be more motivated." Colleen takes a similar tack. "I mean, who wants to go to a gym and self-motivate themselves to run on a treadmill? It just seems like misery. But if there are ten cows that are waiting on you?" she says. "It's almost easier to do it for the cows than for you."

So when your life is your farm and your farm is your life, when days off are hard to come by and every week is the same, you've got to find pleasure where you can. Enter the Farm Girls. "When you're working really hard, it' nice to put on a dress, you know?" Colleen says. "If you're working and sweating seven days a week, why not make work fun?"

The dresses are also a great marketing scheme, though Colleen claims she's never thought of them that way. I will tell you right now that I don't believe this, not for one second. Neither does anyone else I talked to, including Earl. But I do believe that Colleen believes it. That's the thing about Colleen: she's an incredibly smart person in general, and an incredibly savvy businessperson in particular, but she's also truer to herself than almost anyone I've ever met. And that self happens to be a very attractive, irrepressibly happy woman who simply would rather wear a dress than a pair of jeans while she busts her ass running a farm.

What Colleen didn't expect was that the dresses would double as a recruiting tool. "A lot of other girls saw us wearing uniforms that were cute, and then they wanted to work for us," she says. "A farm is hard work, heavy lifting, long hours. Maybe the appearance was glamorous, but the job was the furthest thing from glamorous—" Here she breaks into peals of laughter, as if she can't believe she's succeeded in tricking her employees like this.

"Sometimes when you're milking the cows in a dress, you're gonna get shit on you," says McCall, the market manager. Like all the other girls, she regularly wears bike shorts under her dress so she doesn't accidentally flash anyone. But like Colleen, she says she wouldn't have it any other way.


T

he milkmaid has long been an iconic symbol in Western culture—think Vermeer, think old-school poetry and song. A comely lass in a meadow represents a lot: a rural ideal in an industrial age, the ideal of motherhood. Colleen has embraced this trope—while also flipping it on its head. Her milkmaids are comely, but they're also strong as hell. They project innocence, but also sass. The girls might look cute while they're each lifting eight gallons of milk at a go onto the trucks, they might look sweet while they're leading the cows into the milking barn, but like Colleen, they're as tough as the hooves that might occasionally kick them. In a culture that still devalues the feminine as weak and inferior, creating an environment where wearing a dress is tough turns out to be a surprisingly radical act.

It seems highly unlikely that the Farm Girls would have graced as many glossy magazine pages if they were a plain group in grungy overalls.

Still, sometimes at the market I'll catch sight of the Farm Girls and wonder why there's not an bad-looking one among them. In their five years of existence, this summer is the first time I've seen any Cruze Farm employee who was larger than maybe a size eight. And I've never seen anyone older than twenty-five, except Colleen herself. Their attractiveness is inevitably part of their appeal—it seems highly unlikely that the Farm Girls would have graced as many glossy magazine pages if they were a plain group in grungy overalls. It's unfortunate that still, today, it takes a conventionally attractive retro milkmaid image to attract women to farming. As my friend Ryan says of the Farm Girls one night over dinner, "I know it's a female empowerment thing, with a woman running the farm and and all, and that was cool with me. But lately they've all been blonde and tan." "And thin!" chimes in his fiancee, Kristen. She adds, "At least they're covered up, though. At least it's not Hooters."

It's not easy to get Colleen to talk about this issue, but it is something her employees think about."I love working in a dress," says Elisabeth, the dairy manager. Her take is that our ideas about what it means to wear a dress, and to be a farmer, needs to change. "You can be feminine and be a dairy farmer," she says.

So she doesn't feel sexualized in the uniforms, I ask? Not like the sexy farmer's daughter that seems to show up in every other country music video?

"Just because [some customers] see it as a pixie farm girl image—" she says. "I mean, it is functional, and it is inspiring to young girls. I fail to see in any way that I've interacted with the image how it's degrading."

According to Leigh Cooper, most of her coworkers aren't so girly off the clock, more apt to dress in the cutoffs and Birkenstocks their peers favor. "In some ways [the Farm Girls] are supporting traditional gender norms of wearing dresses and having cute girls," she says. "But I think at the same time, it negates that through the strength and empowerment Colleen puts in all of us. I always feel stronger after I work there."

Leigh, Elisabeth, and McCall — all academically successful women in their early 20s — seem to have no problem taking their ultrafeminine Farm Girl personas on and off along with their uniforms. You can wear a dress and study neuroscience, like McCall does, or wear a dress and pursue a career in international relations consulting, like Leigh plans to. They've all taken women's studies classes, they've probably all read Judith Butler discuss at length the performative aspects of gender.

But not all the Farm Girls are pursuing graduate degrees. Colleen also hires students from the rural public high school nearby, some of whom might not attend college at all. This doesn't mean they might not be equally feminist, or equally adept at switching between the high femme demands of their job and whatever presentation they're more comfortable with in their civilian lives. Yet as a Southern girl myself, as someone raised just two hours from where most of these girls live, I know the kind of burdens that can bear down from not feeling comfortable with traditional femininity, especially when it comes to appearance. It's hard to display the kind of wholesome, "natural" beauty the Farm Girls are supposed to embody unless you actually are blessed to naturally have that look.

What Colleen wants isn't women in dresses. She wants more women in farming, whatever they look like.

When pressed, Colleen says she mostly finds herself taken aback by the attention the uniforms receive, from both customers and reporters. "Basically, it was how my mom dressed us when we worked at the market as kids," she says. The men representing the farm are not exempt from uniforms, either. Manjit and the other men dress in coordinating gingham shirts and khaki pants with suspenders. It's an outfit Colleen says she'd be fine with a woman wearing, too, if someone who didn't want to wear a dress ever applied for the job.

Because what Colleen wants isn't women in dresses. The current crop of thin, blonde Farm Girls aside, what Colleen really wants is more women in farming, whatever they look like. It's something she—a woman working in a world dominated by men, in an agricultural culture dominated by men, in a non-progressive state run by a bevy of sexist yahoos—brings up over and over again. Not the least because as the new mother of a daughter, one whom she hopes will one day take after her and run the farm, she hopes the world will be a slightly easier place then.


T

here's an Anne Sexton poem, "Live," that's mostly about coming out of a deep depression and surviving a suicide attempt . "I am an empress. I wear an apron," Sexton writes. One of the things she finds solace in, one of the things she leans on for strength, is her femininity and maternalism. It reminds me of Colleen.

A few days after I started working on this story in early June, Leigh's father, George Cooper, unexpectedly died. I had first met George and his wife Andria Yates—along with Leigh and her little sister Reid—one Saturday at the farmers' market a few years back, while we were all eating Manjit's Indian food at the Milk Bar. Somehow we kept ending up there at the same time, week after week, and we'd chat about local politics while we shared a table.

I went over to Andria's house the day after the funeral to interview Leigh and to do what consoling I possibly could—my father also died too young, leaving two sad teenage daughters. As we sat and talked and sipped glasses of wine, Andria told me how she and George had given Colleen and Manjit relationship advice over the years. She described their two weddings—a traditional Indian one, followed later in the day by a traditional American one. Then Andria teared up. Although I had long since turned my recorder off, what she said stuck with me.

"I keep thinking about Colleen lately—and I need to tell her this, because I haven't," she said. "But I keep thinking about her down the road, years from now, when her parents have both died or are too elderly to help out. Because then, if something were to happen to Manjit, Colleen couldn't just curl up in the bed and cry all day, because those cows have to be milked. She wouldn't be able to sit around feeling sad because she's got a farm to run. And that's how pioneer women used to do it—they didn't have a choice. There was a farm to be run. There were cows to be milked. And so every time I just want to stay in bed all day and not deal with all this stuff that needs to be sorted out, I think of Colleen. And then I can bear it."

This, I think, is the essence of what Colleen tries to instill in her Farm Girls and also her friends. It's not just the muscles you get from farm work, and it's not just the knowledge that hard, dirty work doesn't have a gender. It's the ability to do tough things over and over, and to keep going day after day, and to find strength and meaning in the routine. You just have to milk the cows, and you just have to make the ice cream. Everything else will follow.


Cari Wade Gervin is a journalist in Tennessee (and before that, Mississippi, and before that, Georgia).
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Photos: Header image, Meghan McCarron; inline images, Cruze Farm, with permission

News

The Largest Meal Kit Company in America Could Be the First to Unionize

Recipes

A Vibrant BLT Salad That Makes the Most of Summer Tomatoes

COVID-19

The Great Shortage

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day