How Chaney’s Dairy Farm Thrived Against All Odds

by | Sep 2023

AS FAMILIES across the country flock to amusement parks, museums, shopping malls, and movie theaters, Bowling Green knows where the real family-friendly fun is: Chaney’s Dairy Farm. 

In 1940, it was more profitable to milk cows than if you were handling beef cattle, pigs, or chickens. Dairy farmers were paid twice a month instead of only getting paid when going to the market. At the time, that was a luxury. 

So, James Riley Chaney began milking two cows by hand every day. Less than 10 years later, he was milking 14 cows by hand. And by 1962, after his farm got electricity, he and his family milked dozens of cows every day, twice a day, and continued to do so for 54 years. 

In 1985, while he continued to work on the farm, he sold his herd to his son, Carl. Now, they milk about 60 cows every day. But as of 2016, nobody is milking by hand. They’re milking by a robot. 

In 2003, as dairy farming became less and less lucrative, Carl and his wife, Debra, knew they had to find a way to save the family farm. They opened Chaney’s Dairy Barn for tours and began making and selling their own ice cream. It was a smash hit. 

Located on the southern edge of Bowling Green, the local staple offers award-winning ice cream, flavored milk, daytime tours, a full lunch menu, and events throughout the year. The first year they opened, they produced 5,000 gallons of ice cream. Last year, they produced 30,000. 

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

“And this year, we’re going to make more than that,” Carl said. “It’s just absolutely crazy right now.” 

It’s a highly successful and multifaceted regional operation, yet the Chaneys have managed to keep it in the family. A few years ago, Carl and Debra’s daughter, Elizabeth, joined the farm and opened a milk processing plant on the farm. 

“Debra and I are the fourth generation,” Carl said. “Our kids are fifth generation, and our grandkids are sixth generation here on the farm.” 

They now process about 35,000 pounds of milk a week to be distributed throughout the region and sold at the farm. This also allows them to create their own ice cream mix, ramping up their business against all industry odds. 

“Dairy farming is a very tough business,” Carl said. “In 2000, there were 2,100 dairy farms in the state of Kentucky. We have now dropped below 400. Milk prices are usually not high enough, and our input cost, feed cost, labor cost, everything that we have to pay out always remains high.” 

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

A lot of farms shut down. But Chaney’s adapted, and it has obviously paid off. In 2004, around 3,500 people toured the farm. This year, Carl estimated about 15,000 people will go on the tour. 

“We’ve actually had to turn people down because we just didn’t have any more room for tours,” he said. 

Chaney’s offers tours partly to tell an agricultural story many haven’t heard. 

“The average consumer today is around three to four generations removed from the farm,” Carl said. “So when topics come up about food and agriculture, where it used to be someone’s parents or grandparents had a farm, and they spent time on the farm, now the consumer is kind of removed from agriculture, and a lot of folks don’t really understand where their food comes from.” 

That education, storytelling, and community involvement are partially what makes the farm’s 16- hour work days worth it. When asked if he enjoyed the work, Carl said, “I don’t really have time to think about it.” 

What he does enjoy is the community. Every June, during Dairy Month, they host Miss Glimmer Appreciation Day — a celebration for their old cow, Miss Glimmer, who was part of the farm tour for seven or eight years and passed away about 1 ½ years ago. To honor her legacy, they’ve given out around 1,200 scoops of ice cream in Miss Glimmer’s name during the event. Now, visitors can see and pet Miss Glimmer’s granddaughter at the farm. 

Photographed by Amanda Guy.

Chaney’s is heavily involved in the Kentucky State Fair. And recently, when a Bowling Green police officer was shot, Chaney’s was involved in fundraising efforts at the Soki Farmers Market pavilion. They raised about $1,300 to put toward his medical care.

“The city of Bowling Green just turned out. It was so crazy,” he said. “It was so awesome to be a part of. It’s the people in Bowling Green that make Bowling Green special.”

Guy Fieri featured the farm and its ice cream on “Guy’s All-American Road Trip.” As part of his visit, Fieri held a competition where he tasked families with creating an exclusive ice cream flavor for Chaney’s to make in their shop. The winner was Papa Guava, a vanilla and cheesecake base with graham cracker crumbles, guava, and a cream cheese swirl. It was named after the family’s patriarch, who had recently passed away. They’re donating some of the proceeds from the sale of Papa Guava to tornado relief efforts in Bowling Green. 

Outside of working with the community, he’ll always enjoy one other part of the job — the product. 

“I’m biased, but I think we’ve got the best ice cream,” Carl said. 

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Their ice cream received the gold medal for best ice cream at the Kentucky State Fair. They received perfect scores at the International Dairy Competition in Los Angeles. 

“I think we’re doing a good job,” Carl said. “ I think there are always ways for us to improve — [things] to look at and look for. [Making] things better and easier for the next generation [is what] it’s all about.” GN

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