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Debra and Carl Chaney
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Written by Jamey Tample
I sit on a hay bale in a red, wrought-iron wagon, singing the revised version of “Old MacDonald.” In this new version, Mr. Chaney is the farmer, and we focus on one particular animal. “And on this farm, he had some cows. E-I-E-I-Ooo.” My son, Jadon, pulls straw out of the bales, one piece at a time, while my daughter, Chloe, kicks her feet, laughs. Much of my family is here: Aunt Vickie; her two grown children, Matt and Lindsay, with their small families; my Mamaw Betty; and my husband B.J. and our kids. We’re all smiling, turning our heads this way and that, drinking in the rich land. Corn is beginning to sprout, little yellow flowers are sprinkled throughout the nearby pasture, and in the distance a cow’s tail whips.
“I can’t remember the last time I went on a hay ride,” my cousin Matt says. We all nod in agreement. I try to think of my last time and only come up with a church fall festival years ago. Yet, I am certain I have never been on a farm tour.
The man leading our wagon in an orange tractor chariot is Carl Chaney, owner and operator of Chaney’s Dairy Barn in Bowling Green. He’s not wearing a farmer MacDonald-style straw hat. Instead, he wears a white Kentucky Proud cap and a polo shirt with the Chaney’s Dairy Barn logo. One hand is on the wheel, the other wrapped around his granddaughter, Halle.
As we move farther along the gravel road, I smell farm. Cow manure. That familiar spring smell when people landscape, but somehow, this farm smell is pleasing, not overpowering. I take a few deep breaths, look out at the miles of land, and I instantly relax.
“Years ago, everybody had a cow in their backyard,” Carl says, now at the end of our ride. His foot is propped up at the wagon’s opening. “Everybody milked a cow.”
Last year, Jadon, who was then 4, asked B.J. and me if we could get a milking cow. Trying his best to take the question seriously, my husband asked, “Buddy, where are we going to put it?” “In the back yard,” Jadon said. “You know, by my bike.”
Like many families, ours is “plugged in.” It’s not unusual to see us all on the sofa, each with an electronic device in hand. B.J. has his iPhone, my kids, who are 5 and 3, their LeapPads, and me, my iPad. This activity is not confined to our living room. We take our devices with us to the doctor’s office, to the store, to work, and even to church (yes, we’re guilty). We consider ourselves “city people,” even though we live in a small eastern Kentucky town (doesn’t living within a town’s city limits count?). A ball field’s fence touches our half-acre yard. The only animal running free is Babs, the neighborhood’s calico.
We don’t know where Jadon got the idea he could have a cow as a pet. For now, we’re blaming The Wonder Pets, and unlike our television shows and virtual worlds, we’re living and experiencing a new brand of education here at Chaney’s.
Carl leads us to Bambi, a calf. The cows are more than animals to the Chaneys. They are all named, lovingly stroked, talked to. In fact, before we started our tour, Debra, Carl’s wife, told us that we had to wait for Miss Glimmer—a Jersey cow—to wake. “I thought she was talking about a human,” my Aunt Vickie later confided.
In 2011, more than 8,000 people participated in the appointment-only farm tour, which runs twice a day on Fridays and Mondays. More than 200,000 visited the Dairy Barn, the large red structure that sits a short distance from the actual barns. At the Barn, ice cream is made daily (more than 16,000 gallons were made last year); lunch and dinner are served, which include homemade soups, salads and sandwiches; and products from Kentucky artisans are sold.
The kids—my two and my cousins’ two kids, Trey and Sydney—are hesitant. Even with Carl petting and talking to Bambi, they still aren’t too sure.
“Naw, cows can’t bite ya. They don’t have top teeth,” Carl says, patting Bambi’s nose. “Stick your hand in there.” His playful jest gets no takers. He then turns his attention back to Bambi. “You’re a good girl. Yes.”
That gentleness continues in the barn where we are introduced to Miss Glimmer. “Now, cows are like people. They have personalities,” he says. “Miss Glimmer loves to have her neck rubbed.” He rubs, moves closer to her ear, whispers.
Miss Glimmer weighs less than a Holstein, the most prevalent milking breed (1,100 pounds to the Holstein’s 1,500), but she still produces about 100 pounds of milk per day, which is about 11½ gallons. The patient and, we learn, pregnant Miss Glimmer stands, chewing.
“When Miss Glimmer eats her food, she swallows it, and this is the real cool part,” Carl says, uses his hands to follow Miss Glimmer’s body, retracing the steps. “She regurgitates it, and rechews it again. That’s what she’s doing right now … that’s what they do. So, she’s working very hard. Chewing cud is making milk.”
Miss Glimmer’s milk is rich, efficient. Carl tells us that Jersey milk has a higher calcium and protein content. When compared with the Holstein, the Jersey also needs less water and land to yield the same milk amounts.
“My dad, back in 1940, had to milk the cows by hand. See, I waited until electricity was invented to be born so we can milk with the machine, which is a whole lot easier,” Carl says. He demonstrates the vacuum, but the kids pull back. We hear a steady cha chu. Cha chu.
“It’s okay. It’s just air. Have you seen a vacuum at home? You know, your dad uses it all the time,” Carl teases. The adults laugh.
“Want to try it?” he asks the kids, and then turns to Jadon, his only willing helper. “Jadon, stick your thumb in there. Good boy, Jadon. Thank you.” With a budding smile, Jadon slightly bends his head.
Cha chu, cha chu.
Carl offers the opportunity to everyone. With no takers, he asks Trey, who refuses.
“Okay, do it from there. We saw you do it. We’ll have an imagination.”
The Chaneys’ product of imagination is called vision, and this gift seems to be genetic. The farm has been in the family since 1888, and in 1940, Carl’s father, Jim, turned it into a dairy farm when he purchased two registered Jersey cows. His two best-known Jerseys, Althea and Topsy, earned Jim accolades worldwide, including the title of master breeder from the June 2003 annual meeting of the American Jersey Cattle Association.
“The legacy part of it is important because how do we keep it? How do we try to pass it on in even better shape than we got it?” Carl asks.
The Chaneys revisit this question often. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports Kentucky had about 2,600 dairy farms 10 years ago; today, that number is 850. To keep their farm, the Chaneys diligently research and network with other business owners and farmers. As Debra says, they’re trying to learn from other people “how to better what we’re doing. Be more efficient. More entertaining. Better employers.”
This research is what first led the two to the idea of opening an ice cream store. Due to low milk prices, the Chaneys knew they’d have to find other ways to become profitable. After visiting several farms and organizations, Carl took the prestigious Penn State University Ice Cream Course. Two years after their quest began, Chaney’s Dairy Barn opened in September 2003. Today, the Chaneys sell ice cream, lunch and dinner foods, and their milk in 20 area Houchens and IGA stores (and from the Barn in returnable glass bottles). They also host family-friendly events throughout the year such as Ice Cream and a Moovie night, corn mazes, Easter egg hunts, and Christmas breakfasts, complete with Carl’s reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Many events are free to the public.
“All of it has come to fruition because it’s allowed us to keep the farm, which we don’t think we would’ve,” Debra says.
For now, the plan is for the couple’s three adult children to one day take over the farm and continue being ambassadors for agriculture. They hope to have a touring facility with observation windows to enhance the experience.
“Wherever you go, people are thanking you. And it really humbles me,” Debra says. “They’ll say, ‘Thank you so much for what you do for the community.’ I don’t feel worthy of the comments because there are a lot of people doing good. We’re in the place where we can help, and why not?”
Carl, who sits beside her, legs crossed and pointed to his wife, agrees.
“When you see the faces of those kids, and you see them excited … they see that milk come through that hose, and you hear ’em go like ‘Awe-some. Oh, that is cool!’ And then you’ll have a couple of kids that get off the wagon, just wrap up around your leg, and give you a big ol’ hug. What else do you need?”
As I step off the wagon at the Barn to end our tour with ice cream, I can’t help but to look at my own kids. Chloe’s loosened hair drapes her eyes and frames her glowing grin. She asks, “What’s next, Momma?” Jadon’s eyes widen as if they try to suck more in, eager. I squeeze my husband’s hand, bend down to our children. I ask, “What flavor do you think you’re gonna get?”