By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
When you think “natural farming” you think grazing animals, lush pastures, ripe manure and plaid-clad farmers. Rivendale Farms has all of those things, but they also have robotics, automation, full-time executive chefs and a spot on the Steelers practice jerseys.
Established in 2015 on 175 acres in Washington County, Rivendale Farms is owned by Thomas Tull, Legendary Entertainment CEO and Steelers minority-owner. Inspired by the renowned Stone Barns farm in Pocantico, NY, Rivendale is based on two principles: “natural farming” and “modern techniques.”
Unlike Stone Barns, Rivendale doesn’t have its own restaurant. Their produce does make its way to the tables of several well-regarded Pittsburgh-area restaurants like Dinette, Station, Legume, Eleven and Whitfield, but Rivendale as a brand is all about the dairy.
Their award-winning Jersey cows’ milk is utilized by The Milkshake Factory, served up as soft-serve in PNC Park and made into chocolate milk that’s become a Steelers recovery drink.
Now their dairy product line is expanding and is more widely available than ever before. In June, Rivendale launched a new hard-pack ice cream line-up of eight flavors in six Giant Eagle Market District stores and a few other local markets.
The Current went to Rivendale Farms to follow the ice cream all the way from doe-eyed calves to packed pints on store shelves.
First, the big, white barn that’s visible from the road in front of the farm is the Elite Barn. In it resides the prize Jersey cows that compete in shows and whose embryos are sold to breeders as far away as Japan and New Zealand.
When you imagine a cow, you’re not picturing a Jersey cow. Jersey cows are smaller than the classic Holstein, and their coat is a warm russet brown. When it comes to cows’ milk, they’re producing the cream of the crop.
“Jersey cow milk is higher in protein and fat and calcium—it’s about 20 percent higher in all of those, which is why it’s more sought after and it’s not as common because Jersey cows are smaller so they provide less milk,” says Christine Grady, general manager of the farm.
“So for most dairy farmers who are interested in volume you see the big black and white Holstein cows,” she continues. “We have Jersey cows specifically because we want that rich, creamy, high-quality milk for our products.”
The Elite Barn cows receive a bit more personalized attention, and they’re pastured for a few hours a day in the fenced field right at the farm’s entrance, welcoming visitors to the property.
The next barn we visit, the Calf Barn, is at the top of the hill where Rivendale rests. Long rows of small stalls house calves that are days or months old. The calves’ quarters are kept very clean because the young animals have vulnerable immune systems.
With their light brown color and slight stature, the Jersey calves look almost like deer. They’re curious and friendly, too.
Once they graduate out of the Calf Barn, they’ll head to the Heifer Barn where they’ll stay until they’re about two years old and can start producing milk and having calves of their own.
The Milking Barn is where Rivendale’s “modern techniques” really come into play. The robotic systems used in this barn are made by a Dutch company called Lely. The first automated machine is the Vector, which feeds the cows every hour, mixing up five different kinds of feed based upon pre-programmed recipes and measuring what the cows have eaten using lasers.
“It can put different types of feed at different locations depending on what they need, like if the cows are in heat or if they’re dry and they need to be eating something different,” Grady says.
The other Lely system they use is the Astronaut, a milking machine. The cows walk in when they want to be milked, which they’re motivated to do because they get uncomfortable when it’s been too long and because the machine rewards them with vanilla-flavored pellets.
“In a traditional parlor system cows get milked twice a day, and with this self-service system they get milked about four times in a 24 hour period and you get about 15 percent more milk than you would in a twice a day milking,” Grady says.
The machine milks them and cleans them, while also collecting data like the cow’s weight and temperature, the amount of milk each teat yields and the temperature of the milk.
According to Grady, the benefits of automation are the obvious labor savings—without it they’d need at least four more employees in the Milking Barn alone—and also the wealth of data the machines collect.
“Normally, in a traditional way, a farmer might not know for an extended period if there’s been an impact on the quality of the milk or the quantity of the milk,” Grady says. “For us, it’s an instant [thing].”
The milk gets taken to Johnstown in Rivendale’s 5,000-gallon truck where it’s processed and made into their chocolate milk and ice creams.
Beyond the cows, Rivendale has a quarter-acre greenhouse (also automated), seven acres of crop production, 600 Rhode Island Red chickens, 300,000 bees and a Chef’s Test Garden where Executive Chefs Daniele Brenci and Cory Helm get to test out new and interesting crops. Right now it contains white strawberries, purple kohlrabi, pink celery, yarrow and more.
“That really gives us the opportunity as chefs to innovate, not only in the kitchen but in the field, and that helps us to have new ideas come up for the ice cream,” Brenci says.
Rivendale’s all-natural philosophy is true in their farming and in their ice creams. Brenci made sure each flavor and color came from the actual ingredient. For example, other than the milk, sugar and stabilizers, the only other ingredient in their hazelnut ice cream is hazelnut paste that’s imported from Italy (Brenci’s home country).
The other flavors are pistachio, honey lavender, strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter chocolate and apricot chocolate—each with the same promise of a focus on the ingredients. Rivendale ice creams also don’t contain any eggs.
“We just want to stay away from allergens and highlight the creaminess of the milk and the richness of the milk with the quality of the ingredients,” Brenci says.
There’s also a special Pirates Treasure flavored with vanilla ice cream (made Pirates yellow through the use of turmeric and annatto) and chocolate crispy pieces available at The Sweet Spot in PNC Park and in Giant Eagle Market Districts along with all of the other pints.