If you’ve ever wanted to get your cheese, ice cream, or milk direct from the farm, you have plenty of options.
Pennsylvania has 5,430 dairy farms — more than any other state except Wisconsin, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence — and the average herd size in Pennsylvania is 84 cows, much smaller than the mega-dairies dominating the industry in other parts of the country.
But Pennsylvania has lost hundreds of dairy farms in the past several years, and holding out is tough in an industry where the price of the product often falls below the cost of production. To keep their operations going — and make farming a viable career path for the next generation — some dairy farm families are selling their products directly to consumers, and welcoming them onto their farms, as a way of being less dependent on the commodity milk market.
Along with her sister Becky, Meredith Baily is the fourth generation of Bailys Dairy at Pocopson Meadow Farm, just south of West Chester. Her grandfather and father sold their milk to Land-O-Lakes for decades, but to keep their cows and their land in the family, the Bailys began pasteurizing, bottling, and marketing their own milk.
Eleven years in, they sell 1,500 to 1,800 gallons of milk — skim, 1.5 percent, whole, chocolate, half-and-half, and heavy cream — each week. Some goes to wholesale customers in the area, while the rest is sold at the family’s on-farm store along with cheese and eggs. “We wanted to do something different and have control over the marketing and processing of our own milk,” Bailey said. “Now, we’re selling everything ourselves.”
The agricultural regions around Philadelphia have also attracted farmstead cheesemakers — and not all of them milk cows. Milk from goats and sheep, while less common in the U.S. than cows, makes great cheese and yogurt. Bill Simmerman, owner of Misty Meadow Sheep Dairy in Petersburg, N,J., makes both from the rich, flavorful milk of about 70 sheep in a variety of flavors, along with something even rarer — sheep’s milk ice cream.
But he has his sights set on something bigger: developing the first large-scale sheep’s milk ice cream company with milk from all over the country coming into a centralized system. “This is my way of helping the dairy industry,” Simmerman said. “Farmers can focus on milking sheep and don’t have to worry about buying expensive equipment.”
The good news is that supporting small-scale dairies and creameries in the Philly area is easy, especially in the summertime. Take a day trip outside the city to stock up on local cheese, milk, and ice cream — and see the animals that make these staples possible up close — or find the dairy closest to you and make it part of your regular grocery rotation. Each of the spots on this list offers some form of on-site shopping, whether at a store, farm stand, or pop-up events, and many also sell products at area farmers’ markets, independent grocers and co-ops, or even ship regionally through their websites.
Here are some great dairies near Philly worth a visit:
Products: Fresh and aged cheeses, kefir, drinkable yogurt
Things to do: Pop-up market starting on July 9
Longtime cheesemaker and cheese consultant Yoav Perry put down roots in his Fishtown neighborhood with a cheesemaking facility located entirely in an outfitted shipping container. This spring, Perrystead began producing fresh and soft-ripened cheeses as well as fizzy, tangy, creamy kefir. While the pint-sized creamery isn’t open to the public, Perry plans to launch a weekly farmers’ market on the creamery’s front patio in July. For now, you can find their cheeses at Riverwards Produce, just a few blocks away.
Products: Sheep’s milk, fresh and aged cheeses, yogurt, popsicles, ice cream, honey, and lamb. Cheese boards available via pre-order.
Things to do: Farm store, lamb camp and daycare, half-day summer camp, pick-your-own sunflowers
With weekend hours and a selection of frozen desserts, Misty Meadows’ on-farm store is the perfect pit stop between the city and the shore. Stock up on sheep’s milk cheeses, including three different flavors of feta, and pick up sheep’s milk ice cream in flavors like raspberry, vanilla, and new sunflower seed lavender chip. Don’t skip the Sheepsicle, their flagship sweet treat made from tangy frozen sheep yogurt dipped in Belgian chocolate. The farm also offers lamb camp for kids, with one-hour sessions where the little ones can meet the lambs. There’s also lamb daycare, 30-minute blocks for teens and adults, as well as U-pick sunflowers in high summer. Once visitors are done taking selfies and harvesting bouquets, the flowers are harvested for the sheep to snack on — seeds, flower head, and all.
Products: Milk and ice cream (summer), eggs, ice cream cakes (preorder only)
Things to do: Ice cream shop, farm store, farm tours, summer day camp, birthday parties, pick-your-own pumpkins (fall)
The Matthews family has raised cows on this lush, green hundred-acre farm in Chester County for nearly 120 years, but they only started producing their own ice cream on-site in 2001. Today, they make nearly 50 flavors at their on-farm ice cream parlor, where you can enjoy cones, shakes, and sundaes and pick up pints and quarts for your home freezer. There’s plenty of outdoor space to relax and watch the animals while you cool off with a creamy treat, too.
Products: Milk, ice cream, cheese, eggs, seasonal produce
Things to do: Farm store, ice cream truck, birthday parties
For locals, Bailys is a regular stop for milk, but in summertime, it makes a great trip out of the city. Stop by during the week for skim, 1.5 percent, whole, and chocolate milks, plus half-and-half, heavy cream, cheese, and fresh eggs. Or visit on a weekend afternoon in summer, when the family’s own ice cream truck sets up by the pasture with vanilla bean soft-serve and toppings like local honey and sweet-tart raspberry shrub. You’ll notice the cows aren’t the usual black-and-white Holsteins that make up the majority of American dairy cows, but mostly speckled American Lineback cattle with a few other heritage breeds in the mix for good measure.
Products: Milk, ice cream, baked goods, local groceries, ice cream cakes (preorder only)
Things to do: Farm store, milking parlor viewing, farm animal visits
City-dwellers may recognize the Merrymead label from the milk this fifth-generation dairy sells to independent grocers and food co-ops around the region. But their Montco farm has also become a hub for local foods. Their on-site store features products from nearby producers as well as Merrymead’s own bottled milks, while their ice cream counter offers options like whiskey, lemon cookie, and banana peanut butter chip along with the classics. Stop by during the afternoon for a peek into the milking parlor window to see how it all starts.
Products: Cheese, butter, meats, produce, breads
Things to do: Farmstand
Cheesemaker Stefanie Angstadt didn’t just start a cheesemaking business when she transformed the old milking parlor of historic Covered Bridge Farm in Berks County into a micro-creamery producing French- and Dutch-inspired cheeses. She networked with other small, sustainably-minded farmers in the bucolic Oley Valley to create an honor farmstand just outside the creamery door, selling a local bounty including hot sauces made from heirloom peppers, wood-fired artisan breads, pasture-raised meats, oyster mushrooms, and, of course, her own artisan cheeses and butter. Bring a cooler bag and make Covered Bridge a stop on your next farm country day trip.
Products: Cheese, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, veal, lamb, jerky
Things to do: Farm store, deer processing
While this seventh-generation farm is mainly known for their meats — locally raised beef, pork, lamb, veal, and chicken; holiday hams; award-winning honey bologna; and deer processing during hunting season — the Ely family makes outstanding cheeses, too. Their well-stocked farm store offers an abundance of options: Ely Farm Cheese, a mellow, snackable Colby style that also comes smoked, as well as American Cheese Society award winner Washington Crossing, a full-flavored American original with the smooth texture of Fontina and a Parmigiano-like punch.
Products: Heavy cream, yogurt, cheese, butter, beef
Things to do: Farm store, self-guided farm tours
Plenty of dairies produce certified organic milk that complies with a set of USDA standards for sustainability, but Seven Stars Farm — like some of your favorite natural winemakers — is also certified biodynamic, which means it follows a specific set of holistic farming practices that treats the farm as a living organism. Their big-eyed, toast-brown Jersey cows give milk that’s higher in fat than many other breeds, which might explain why their golden-hued heavy cream is so rich and flavorful. Stop by their farm store to try it yourself — they also sell their own yogurt in plain, maple, vanilla, and lemon as well as cheese, grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised pork.
» READ MORE: The best wine bars in Philadelphia
Products: Raw milk, cheese, butter, meats, local groceries
Things to do: Farm store
Dairy farms dot the rolling Lancaster County landscape, but many are home to those hardy Holstein cows. At Dutch Meadows, the milk — and the cows — are unique. Black at head and tail with a wide white band through their middle, heritage breed Dutch Belted cows give particularly rich milk. Third-generation farmers, the Stoltzfus family has been farming organically for more than 20 years, and they’re the only farm that offers USDA certified organic raw milk in the area. Pick it up at their farmstand along with pasture-raised meats, raw milk cheeses, baked goods, honey, and more local goods.
Products: Cheese, local groceries
Things to do: Farm store, farm tours, picnics, cheesemaking classes
While New Jersey isn’t quite as dominant in dairy as its neighbor to the west, the Garden State still has plenty of dairy farms making everything from milk to ice cream to artisan cheese. Cherry Grove, tucked just off Route 206 south of Princeton, is one of a handful of specialty cheesemakers in the state. Hit up their well-stocked farm store for American Cheese Society Award-winning wheels made from rich Jersey cow’s milk like Buttercup, their lush, mushroomy Brie style, and Havilah, a long-aged Alpine wheel with a savory flavor and notes of pineapple and caramel.
Products: Fresh and aged goat cheeses, raw goat milk, yogurt, kefir, eggs
Things to do: Farmstand
Farmer and cheesemaker Pete Demchur started making cheese after receiving just two goats as a gift nearly 20 years ago. Today, Shellbark Hollow has a thriving herd of 100 heritage-breed Nubian goats. Demchur transforms their milk into yogurt, kefir, and artisan cheese as well as selling it raw from the farm’s onsite store and farmers’ markets in Philly and Chester County. His Sharp 2 Chevre — a drier, punchier take on the classic fresh French goat cheese — is still one-of-a-kind two decades on, but don’t sleep on aged cheeses like earthy, spreadable, bloomy rind Aurora’s Cloud or Cindy, a raw milk wheel in the style of Taleggio.
Products: Fresh and aged cheeses, cheddar curds, Greek yogurt, yogurt smoothies
Things to do: Farm store
Locally made cheese doesn’t have to be high-end to be high quality — and Conebella Farm’s cheeses are proof of that. Fifth-generation farmers, the Gable family raise heritage breed Ayrshire cows, which are known for their high butterfat content. That rich milk is transformed into yogurts and smoothies as well as cheese: cheddars flavored with smoke or Old Bay, snackable Colby, fluffy spreads, and fresh cheddar curds spiked with seasonings. Stop by their Chester County farm store to stock up, or find their goods at farmers’ markets in Reading, West Chester, and Havertown and at independent grocers around the region.
Products: Aged cheeses, milk, butter, breads, baked goods, meats
Things to do: Farm store, farm tours
What’s better with a hunk of great cheese than a fresh loaf of bread? Bobolink owners Nina and Jonathan White are renowned for their naturally leavened, wood-fired loaves, pasture-raised beef and pork, and rustic, handmade artisan cheeses produced with the farm’s own grass-fed cow’s milk. In addition to their on-farm store, the Whites host farm tours and outdoor concerts on the property during the spring and summer.
Products: Cheese, yogurt, sandwiches, coffee, gift baskets
Things to do: Farm store
The Rotelle family started making cheese in a facility on their Chester County farm, but they moved the operation to a standalone facility and shop in 2013. The result is something like a country Wawa, with sandwiches, locally roasted coffee, Pennsylvania Dutch favorites like pickles and whoopie pies, and lots of cheese — especially cheddar in flavors ranging from apple cinnamon to muffaletta. Watch it go from milk to curd through the shop’s viewing windows, which open into the shiny steel vats of the creamery to show the makers at work, stirring curd and dipping retail-cut blocks into colorful wax.
Products: Fresh and aged cheeses, cheddar curds, crème fraîche, pork, beef, veal
Things to do: Virtual tastings (online)
While dairy farming is a centuries-old tradition in Pennsylvania, its artisan cheesemaking scene is a little younger. Birchrun Hills cheesemaker Sue Miller was one of the first in the greater Philly area to take inspiration from traditional European cheesemaking and apply the craft to the milk from her family’s first-generation dairy farm. Today, she, her husband, and their two grown sons grow the feed, manage the pastures, and make and sell the cheese from their 80-or-so happy Holsteins. The Millers are planning to launch an on-farm retail store later this summer, and you can also pre-order through their website. Choose on-farm pickup to get a view of the cows, who hang out in the barn just above the cheese room munching hay and staying cool in the hot summer months.
Located on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus, UDairy Creamery has made ice cream from the milk of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences’ 100-Holstein herd since 2008. More recently, the nonprofit has developed their own cheeses including a tangy, buttery Colby style called Delaware Gold and three flavors of fresh cheddar curds. The creamery’s rotating menu includes ice cream flavors developed by student interns; right now, they’re scooping a new one called Ube-be Baby, made with vanilla wafer cookies and ube, the sweet, vividly purple yam native to the Philippines. Grab a scoop, scope out the cows — they’re typically hanging out in the pastures about 100 yards from the creamery — and take a stroll through the school’s botanical gardens while you’re there.
About the author:
Alexandra Jones is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications like USA Today, Food & Wine, HuffPost, Civil Eats, and Gastro Obscura.
» READ MORE: Our best Philly tips: Read our most useful stories