OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – Spurred forward by the coronavirus pandemic, the Rucks family of Milking R Dairy took the leap into processing and direct marketing its milk to launch Sutton Milk and Ice Cream in 2020.
Milking R Dairy is a fifth-generation, family-owned, 1,450-cow dairy farm operated by Sutton and Kris Rucks and their children Lindsey and Garrett in southern Florida near Okeechobee.
Promoting agriculture, particularly the dairy industry and their own farm in their increasingly urban area, is something the Rucks family has always placed importance on.
They began opening their farm for visitors and tours several years ago, creating agritourism events to help share their story. They even built a playground area on the farm as a draw for families with small children. In a typical year, the Rucks host more than 1,500 students for school tours.
“Even before the pandemic, there was an increased interest in consumers who wanted to know where their food was coming from and how it was being made,” Lindsey Rucks-Pettit said. “Dad saw the writing on the wall and decided to run with it. We connected with a local processor to bottle our milk with our label. That is how Sutton Milk was born at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Sutton Milk is derived from Rucks-Pettit’s great-grandmother’s maiden name.
“She is the matriarch of our family and, together with her father, started the family’s farm,” Rucks-Pettit said.
The family purchased a food trailer and secured all the necessary permits to begin their direct-marketing business before the pandemic affected those areas of local government.
For a couple of years, Sutton had been stepping back from his hands-on role in the barns and turned much of the herd management to his children. That opened him up for his new role on the farm.
Rucks-Pettit now calls her father “The Milk Man.”
“Dad pretty much delivers milk seven days a week,” Rucks-Pettit said.
The Rucks family has partnered with about 50 restaurants, coffee shops, small stores and produce stands to market their milk. They also sell milk, ice cream and ground beef in their on-farm store.
While Sutton oversees the milk marketing, Rucks-Pettit has taken the reins of making ice cream. With the addition of those two enterprises, Kris oversees the farm while Garrett has taken over many of Rucks-Pettit’s duties in the barns.
The hard, hand-mixed and hand-packed ice cream is made on the farm using a 14% pasteurized mix a local creamery prepares for them using the milk produced at Milking R Dairy. The whole family gets into the creative process to develop recipes for new and unique flavors.
While not all flavors are in stock at any given time, the Ruckses have developed a library of about 45 flavors they rotate in and out. Each batch of a particular flavor makes about 35 pints, and they typically make 200 pints of a flavor each time, which Rucks-Pettit said is about a two-week supply.
Quality is a paramount concern to Rucks-Pettit when it comes to her ice cream.
“I only use top-quality ingredients, and I don’t skimp on them,” Rucks-Pettit said. “I hate when you get something like cookie dough ice cream and there is hardly any cookie dough. The base of our cookie dough ice cream tastes like cookie dough, and it is loaded with cookie dough chunks all the way through.”
To go along with the top-notch ingredients, the Ruckses create unique combinations and creative, memorable names, including 50 Shades of Chocolate and Natural Blonde.
One of their most popular flavors is Garrett’s concoction of banana pudding ice cream.
“I have to give credit where credit is due; Garrett really perfected that one,” Rucks-Pettit said. “It has real bananas and vanilla wafers and is really so good.”
Rucks-Pettit has developed what she calls adult ice cream for those over 21 years old.
“As a nod to some of the storms we have weathered, we have one called Cat 5 Hurricane,” Rucks-Pettit said. “It has passion fruit, orange juice, and both light and dark rum. We have another one called Watermelon Crawl made with tequila.”
The one thing missing from their repertoire is a simple vanilla ice cream, but due to customer requests, Rucks-Pettit said she is working to create the perfect version of the time-honored classic.
“Our mission is that no one walks away unsatisfied,” Rucks-Pettit said. “You’ll never find just three pecans in your butter pecan ice cream if it has our label on it.”
The Ruckses began selling ice cream online with on-farm pickup.
“It was crazy when we started that,” she said. “We could sell 500 pints in three minutes. At first, we couldn’t build inventory. We were making ice cream almost 24 hours a day to keep up with those orders.”
In the early days of the ice cream business, the Ruckses benefited from family and friends who chipped in to lend a hand, allowing them to work the kinks out of the business as it grew.
“We have seen such a shift in people wanting to buy locally produced food and support local farmers since the beginning of the pandemic,” Rucks-Pettit said. “We really hope that will maintain. We believe it will. We give them a great product, and in return, they want to support us.”