Berryville family operates highest yielding dairy farm in Virginia

By Ryan Cornell

BERRYVILLE — When Stanley Stiles married Barbara Riggs 60 years ago, the two dairy farmers from Gaithersburg, Md., began an operation that would later span two states, nearly 2,000 acres and produce one of the best rolling herd averages in the country.

For the Stiles and two of their children, Steve and Chris Stiles, milk isn’t only a drink or a business, it’s their lifeblood. Dairy is what they think about, it’s what they talk about and it’s what their jokes are about.

“The old story was, if you’re too poor to have Holsteins, which we mostly had, you can have Jerseys, which they had,” Mrs. Stiles said.

“No, that’s not how it goes,” her husband corrected her. “If you’re too proud to have goats, you have Jerseys.”

Whichever the case, Stiles was once a Jersey farmer himself. Recalling the first time he stepped foot on the Riggs family farm, he said: “I used to milk 18 cows, and we got married and when I went up to her house, they were milking 60 cows in a real long barn and I walked in there and my stomach sort of rolled a bit.”

Those 60 cows are a small fraction compared to the 300 cows milked on their Berryville farm each day. Stiles said the farm is so large that it could be raining on one end of the farm and completely dry on the other.

Despite the farm’s rapid growth, the Stiles have managed to keep it in the family with the help of five employees. Chris and Steve Stiles are fifth-generation dairy farmers and their children are headed in the same direction. Chris Stiles’ daughter recently graduated from Virginia Polytechnic and State University with a degree in dairy science and a minor in horticulture. She is now managing a dairy farm in Nebraska with her husband. Chris’ son will be attending Lord Fairfax Community College and works part time at the farm.

In the June issue of The Virginia Dairyman, Dairy One ranked Riggs & Stiles Inc. as the highest yielding dairy farm in Virginia. The average cow at Riggs & Stiles produces 80 pounds of milk per day and 27,000 pounds of milk per year. The milk is then shipped to Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers, which has a manufacturing plant in Strasburg.

South of Pennsylvania and north of Harrisonburg, Berryville is what Chris Stiles describes as a “dairy farm no man’s land.” The Stiles moved their cattle to the farm in 1987 when they expanded from their crop farm in Charles Town, W.Va., property that Stiles paid $180 per acre for 440 acres “before Charles Town became Charles Town.”

Born in 1928, Stiles has seen dairy farming fully evolve, from the days he listened to Paul Harvey on the radio at noon, to today when nearly every piece of information is computerized.

He’s seen droughts come and go, though he said 2009 was the worst year he can remember. “With the price of milk, you couldn’t break even,” he said.

Chris Stiles noted that 2009 was not a good year to be a dairy farmer. “It was just a good way to wake up every day and lose $2,000.”

For obvious reasons, dairy farming isn’t like an ordinary business. There’s no competition and farmers don’t have any control over the price of their milk; the government does. The only thing we can control, Chris Stiles said, are the costs.

Like many farmers, the family was concerned about the five-year farm bill currently in the House. They worried about whether the government was going to start cutting its crop insurance program.

“Basically, if you have a really dry year, that’s your safety net,” said Chris Stiles. “Without crop insurance, that drought in the West last year would’ve been a financial disaster.”

Also, like many dairy farmers, they remember drinking raw milk. Chris Stiles said that when he ran out of milk for his cereal, he would take a metal can and dip it into a tank of unpasteurized milk. But he would have to make sure the agitator was running, or he would end up with cream.

Dairy farming might have gotten more sophisticated and technical, but the elder Stiles still goes to sleep around 8 p.m. Milk still flows through his veins and his wife’s veins. Their responsibilities have been relegated to more of the business side of the farm rather than the physical milking and feeding of the cattle, but they always will be proud to call themselves dairy farmers.

“What’s the saying?” asked Stiles. “You don’t die, you just fade away? That’s true for farmers, too.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com