Poised and articulate, with black curly hair, perfect white teeth, glowing skin, and lively dark eyes, 20-year-old Colleen Cruze exhibits a charming combination of sweet innocence along with a maturity beyond that of most of her peers. This agricultural science major at the University of Tennessee may be the best advertisement ever for growing up on a dairy farm—in this case, Cruze Dairy Farm in the French Broad Area.
Colleen's father Earl Cruze, a fourth-generation farmer, put together his own farm a parcel at a time after seeing what happened after his parents retired and sold their land, which became "an industrial park, a rock quarry, and a garbage dump." As noted on the Humanities Tennessee Web site (tn-humanities.org), "the Cruzes became the first Tennessee farmers to participate in the federally funded Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. They agreed to put a conservation easement on their 450-acre dairy farm, which protects the land from future non-agricultural uses."
The farm is part of the old Howell Nursery property, complete with an old pump that pulls water out of the French Broad River for irrigation. The unspoiled land dates back to Revolutionary War grants in the area. The Cruzes live in an 1888 farmhouse, a two-story clapboard house. Indian mounds and James White's first cabin are nearby. "There is a lot of history in this area," says Colleen.
The family raises Jersey cows, which, according to Colleen, "have sweeter milk with higher butterfat." She describes the milk as "not homogenized; pasteurized but not processed; natural, but not technically organic." Because the milk is rich, with cream on top, some customers make butter with the cream. You can buy buttermilk and whole milk from Cruze Dairy at Three Rivers Market on Broadway. At some point, Colleen hopes to make cheese and cottage cheese, but for now the other big Cruze Farm Dairy product is ice cream.
If you ever bought fresh hand-dipped ice cream at the defunct Knox County Regional Farmers' Market, chances are good Colleen or one of her siblings served it to you. That market's closed, but you can still order ice cream from Cruze Dairy in the summer. The flavors include basics like vanilla and chocolate as well as mint chocolate chip and coffee and the very popular lemon custard and blackberry.
If Colleen realizes her dream, you'll soon be able to purchase a range of the dairy's products—but especially the ice cream—at a new retail store on the family's farm. "I love selling products!" says Colleen. "I really want to return to that. And I want people to visit the farm."
Her plans also include selling produce. In a large organic garden on rich river-bottom soil, the family is raising potatoes, broccoli, corn, tomatoes, green beans, carrots, cucumbers, yellow squash, and zucchini to sell at the Market Square Farmers' Market this year—and possibly at some other markets.
Colleen seems to thrive on the hard work and discipline of farm life, milking about 140 cows daily and her favorite, "feeding 21 baby cows" morning and evening with half-gallon bottles—a process that takes about 90 minutes each time. She relishes bringing a woman's touch to the operation and loves giving the calves "sweet names like Lily and Bessie." She wants them to feel "comfortable and happy." She laughs when saying that her father "only names ‘the crazy ones,' giving them names like Loco and Fence Jumper." She's interested in seeing if "her" cows give sweeter milk.
Colleen admits that growing up on a farm has helped her. "It's peaceful," she says. "I love being outside. I enjoy nature. And there aren't that many farms any more."
"I've always had chores," she adds, and impishly describes how she got her friends to help her: "I told them, I can't go out until I finish my chores, so they pitched in and helped—and had fun doing it."