November 29, 2021 at 8:55 p.m.
“We are really in a strange time for dairy,” said Bob Miller, an owner of Nice Farms Creamery. “There are lots of misconceptions in the industry right now, but I think there is room for all types of farms in the industry if you are willing to be enterprising and build what you envision.”
Nice Farms Creamery is located on Maryland’s eastern shore in Caroline County. Bob, along with his wife, Jaclynne, and sister-in-law, Brandy Miller, milk 45 A2A2 Jerseys and utilize intensive rotational grazing. They each wear many of the hats necessary to operate both the dairy and the creamery. They process and bottle their milk as well as make yogurt, butter, ice cream and a variety of other products.
“I am a student of history, and with Mount Vernon being nearby, I have always been captivated by George Washington,” Miller said. “Not only was he a general and a statesman, but he was a farmer with a love of agriculture. He was an innovator.”
Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000. He served two tours of duty with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq where he achieved the rank of captain, serving as a platoon leader from 2005 until his retirement in 2009.
Miller watched Iraqi farmers sell their products directly to their neighbors, and a seed for his own future was sown in the back of his mind. Miller made the decision to retire and head home to his family’s dairy farm in Maryland to pursue the dream of building his own creamery.
The last 13 years have been full of trials and tribulations as the Millers have navigated the social, economic and regulatory challenges of operating a creamery along with their dairy farm.
“When we first started, we still sold to a cooperative, which was like a safety net,” Miller said. “Eventually shipping there was no longer an option, largely because of the volume of milk we shipped. Without that, the dedication factor has really kicked in.”
The Millers bottle and process their milk every single day. During an average day, Miller estimates they process just over 200 gallons.
“We are really all in here; there are really no days off,” Miller said. “That is what we have to do to produce and market the kind of milk we want to sell, a very fresh, wholesome product; that requires us to bottle daily. Quality milk is everything.”
The Millers attend several farmers markets and have store hours on the farm. They also work with local coffee shops and small stores to market their products. In the early days of the creamery, they had a small home delivery route.
While industry trends point to agrowing need for smaller producers to consider niche marketing, often including on-farm processing, Miller warned those thinking about the possibilities should be prepared for resistance at times, noting that often meeting the financial and regulatory burdens are difficult.
“In my experience, it seems the smaller and more genuine you want to be, the stricter and stringent the regulations you need to follow are,” Miller said. “It was also difficult to obtain financing. Lenders did not have a lot of faith in what I wanted to do, and I did not want to use grant money. I wanted to make sure it was real and could thrive on its own.”
Miller said their size makes it difficult for some regulators and inspectors to fully understand their farm.
The questions and doubts others had about what the Millers planned to do led them to take the slow approach into growing and developing their dairy and creamery operations over the past 13 years. They began with bottling both white and chocolate milk and making yogurt. After searching for a cream separator to suit their enterprise, they began adding butter, skim milk and eventually ice cream.
“We have just worked on becoming more diversified over time,” Miller said.
As the Millers wrapped up their 10th successful year in 2019 and looked forward to starting their second decade, the world ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID and everything it brought really shook things up and has been a huge challenge,” Miller said. “The farmers markets and some of the shops we market our products at closed down without notice. Like the rest of the world, we just had to regroup and deal with it.”
The home delivery route that had only about 10 customers suddenly become a lifeline for the farm as they shifted and adapted in response to the pandemic.
“At first, we ramped up the home delivery service as almost an emergency response,” Miller said. “But it has continued even as things are opening back up and people are beginning to live their lives again. We have decided to stick with it and with the good, hardworking families who have stuck with us. The pandemic really showed us who our friends are.”
Challenges have continued for the creamery, with supply chain shortages and rising input costs.
“We sometimes have trouble getting the containers we need, which is concerning,” Miller said. “Right now, I have thriving home delivery routes, but my fuel costs have nearly doubled in the past year. Those things all make operating a business difficult.”
Despite the challenges, Miller said the rewards are bountiful, and he is happy to be raising his family on the farm.
“I tell them that they will learn everything they need to know about life right here on the farm,” Miller said.
And deep down, Miller feels good serving his fellow Americans, providing them with a nutritious, wholesome product.
“It’s a patriotic thing to do, what we do as dairy farmers,” Miller said. “I think that is something that we should always wear with pride: making a product like we do; our milk starts from grass in the field, and then we are able to give someone a gallon of milk at the end of it. That is something honorable.”
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