The sun sets over Mills River Creamery in Western North Carolina. A small herd of Jersey cows hear a farmworker whistle, so they amble over to the milking parlor. The milking machine chugs along as owner Bradley Johnston looks over the herd.
He’s a third-generation farmer whose family has seen dramatic changes in the local dairy industry since his grandfather started selling milk directly to the public in 1917. “Of course he was hand-milking the cows and selling raw milk to the neighborhood people who didn’t have cattle or their own milk supply,” Johnston says.
When Johnston’s father took over the operation in the 1940s, he added an automated milking system so he could increase the size of their herd. “I’m one of five children so our joke is everytime my mother and father had another kid, they added 10 more cows,” Johnston says. “So by the time I came along, I am the youngest of the bunch, he was milking about 60 cows.”
At first they sold the milk to Biltmore Dairy, and then Milkco, which is owned by Ingles, the local grocery chain. In 2016, Johnston decided to close the commercial side of his dairy.
“I’ve lived the commercial life all my life and I was ready to scale down,” he says. “You can’t make a living on a small commercial dairy hardly anymore so we had to come up with a way to have a value added product and make it something different and something special that the consumers were looking for,” he says. “So that’s the reason for the size we are now and for what we’re doing.”
Now Johnston has 42 cows that live outdoors on 35 acres, and Mills River Creamery sells directly to the public again. They bottle their own milk, and have a shop down the road where they sell ice cream, chocolate milk, and butter. Although customer demand for local dairy products is up, Johnston isn’t eager to increase the number of cows on his pasture.
“We’re going to try to find our niche, our happy medium for the cows that we can handle and keep everything comfortable,” he says. “With the grazing operation and the limited land we have here we can only grow so big. We’re going to find that level and that’s where we’re going stay, and if there’s a bigger market out there maybe somebody else will want to fill it.”
There aren’t many other dairies in Western North Carolina that sell milk directly to the public. The infrastructure costs and regulations for bottling your own milk make this option unattainable for many farms. Commercial dairies often struggle with the high cost of land, feed, and labor, along with the volatility of milk prices.
Johnston hasn’t forgotten his fellow farmers who are still holding on to their commercial dairy farms. “I’d love to see the commercial boys get a better price for their milk. They’re all struggling right now nationwide and of course they’ve been friends of mine for a long time and I’d love to see them get back in profitability.”
One of the ways that Mills River Creamery is boosting its own profitability is through education and agritourism. They added bleachers to their milking parlor so school groups can see the process up close. Visitors can learn how small dairies are part of the local food system, and then visit the creamery to buy dairy products to take home.
Even though Johnston doesn’t want more cows, he still wants to grow the business. He says he’ll look to the community to decide what’s next. “Of course we want to grow and I think that agritourism can be a big thing for us. You’ve got to keep growing, you can’t go backwards, so however we choose or the public chooses to let us do that, that’s the direction we’ll go.”
Learn more about local dairy products and where to find them in ASAP’s Local Food Guide, www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: August 20, 2018