Just off Lake Wheeler Road, a quiet pasture is punctuated by the sound of an occasional passing car, but mostly by moos.
In the distance, Raleigh’s downtown skyline is visible over a hill. But here, at N.C. State University’s 389-acre dairy farm, a visitor might as well be in rural North Carolina.
Twice a day, Holstein, Jersey and Guernsey cows are led into the milking parlor, where animal science students and dairy managers work to milk the 165-head herd. The milk is later processed at a facility on NCSU’s main campus, where pint cartons roll off a conveyer belt on their way to the state prison system. Nearby, students and staff mix the popular Howling Cow ice cream, which is sold on N.C. State’s campus and at the State Fair.
For years, this operation functioned out of the public eye. But not anymore.
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Early this year, the university will break ground on a $1.2 million dairy education center and creamery cafe, which will open to the public within two years. The privately funded project will represent a major new agritourism attraction for Raleigh and the Triangle.
The center is still in design, but it is likely to have video feeds of milk processing, interactive displays and tours of the farm, giving visitors a unique agricultural experience at the edge of an urban metropolis.
“They will be able to go to a farm and learn, what does it take to put that glass of milk or cup of ice cream on the table?” said Gary Cartwright, director of NCSU’s dairy enterprise system. “They’ll be able to see the entire picture at one location.”
The public will also learn what makes NCSU’s dairy, with about 400 cows total, a unique operation.
Near the new center is a barn-like structure that already houses Randleigh Heritage Museum. It tells the history of a New York farm owned by William Rand Kenan Jr., the chemist, industrialist and philanthropist whose name is attached to buildings, professorships and the football stadium at UNC. When Kenan died in 1965, he willed Randleigh to the UNC system. The farm operation, and its Jersey cows with milk rich in butterfat and protein, were moved near Raleigh. The Jersey cows on the property today are descended from Kenan’s original herd.
Around the corner from the museum is a large milking parlor. Behind that, newborn calves are housed individually in special hutches for 65 days, where they are bottle fed and cared for to make sure their immune systems are strong.
On a balmy December day, a calf named Cindy Moo Hoo sunned herself on a bed of hay. Another, named Vixen, was struggling to stand on her spindly legs, about 18 hours after birth. “That’s just her getting her legs, and learning how to balance,” said Devan Pendry, a 2014 NCSU graduate who is herd manager at the farm.
Daily, about 15 students work at the farm milking cows, cleaning up and taking care of calves. In the processing facility, graduate students test new products for industry partners. This kind of experiential education is important for students who are studying agriculture, Cartwright said. They have to understand the hard work involved to know whether they can commit, whether they’re passionate about it, he said.
“They’re not going to have that epiphany in a classroom,” Cartwright said, adding that many students today don’t have experience on a farm. “We’ve got to create new agricultural people.”
Similarly, the public today doesn’t have a good understanding of farming, said Charles “Buddy” Gaither, past president of Milkco, a dairy processor in Asheville.
Gaither, an NCSU alumnus, has helped with the planning of the new center, which has been in the idea and fundraising stage for years.
“A smaller and smaller percentage of the public in general has had experience on the farm,” Gaither said. “To give them a chance to see what’s actually going on, the way things are done and how animals are treated, it gives us a chance to answer questions. We feel like the dairy industry is really a very worthwhile part of our general economy, our agricultural economy. We like to be able to talk directly to the public and get this across to them.”
The center is likely to become a destination for school groups, organized tours and families. Proceeds from ice cream sales will go toward sustaining the farm’s operation.
Long a State Fair favorite, N.C. State’s ice cream was branded as Howling Cow and quickly embraced by the university as its own brand. It’s now sold at dining halls, libraries and retail outlets around campus, with about 15 regular flavors from Chocolate Chip Mint to Butter Almond to Cherry Brick Road. Wolf Tracks, with peanut butter cups and fudge swirls, is a top seller.
Once the new center opens, visitors will get a bite at the frozen treat, topped with a sprinkle of education.
“People are so hungry to know more about where their food comes from,” Cartwright said. “That’s what drives the local food movement.”