Ontario dairy farmer grows business with on-farm dairy processing

By Lisa McLean

(Creemore) Fresh-from-the-farm milk in glass bottles is a thing of the past for many Ontario consumers. But for John and Marie Miller and their son Shawn of Creemore, Ontario, it is most definitely the future. The family, and dedicated team, at Jalon Farms and Miller’s Dairy work side-by-side at their new on-farm artisan dairy processing facility that produces milk and cream from their 120 Jersey cows they milk twice daily.

John and Shawn Miller of Creemore

John and Shawn Miller of Creemore

The Jersey difference

Jersey cows — which are smaller brown cows compared to their black and white Holstein counterparts — make up only four per cent of the dairy cow population in Canada. John says Jersey cows produce milk that is distinctly sweeter in taste and provides opportunities for differentiation in the marketplace.

“Jersey cows produce milk with higher butterfat, higher protein and more calcium,” says Shawn. “When people sample our milk during in-store tastings, they can’t believe how good it tastes. I like to think our Jersey milk, in a glass bottle, tastes how milk is supposed to taste.”

Jerseys are easier on the environment too. The cows are small in size and require less feed, making them the dairy breed with the smallest carbon footprint.

The journey to on-farm processing

The Millers broke ground on Miller’s Dairy in August 2011, after John and Marie researched similar setups in the New England states. John says his mother’s family had processed milk, and he was keen to return to those roots.

“We met a dairy farmer, Paul Kokoski, in 2010 who has a similar-sized Jersey herd in a region with similar demographics to Creemore,” Miller says. “Later that year Paul told us about some pasteurizing equipment that was available from a dairy that was shutting down in South Carolina, so Shawn and I went down to check it out.”

The Miller’s Dairy facility is located directly beside the family’s milking barn, known as Jalon Farms. Once milk is tested, it passes through an underground pipe into the next building, where it is pasteurized using a high temperature short time (HTST) pasteurizer and sold in custom-branded glass bottles in a large (1.89 l) and smaller (946 ml) format. They produce cream and milk in a variety of fat contents, ranging from skim milk to 35 per cent cream, but they report each week it’s anyone’s guess whether chocolate milk or 2% will reign supreme.

Connecting with consumers

Each summer, the family opens up their farm for visitors to tour. The open house – dubbed “Miller’s Dairy Day” – gives the public access to the barn, the dairy, and gives them a chance to meet “the girls” that provide their Jersey milk. Last year they hosted 1,800 people.

“People love the chance to see where their milk is made. It’s not something they get to do all the time,” Miller says. “Our cows get lots of exercise in our free stall facility. The cows lie on rubber filled mattresses for comfort. When visitors see how well our ‘girls’ are cared for and how comfortable they are, they say, ‘I wish I could live here.’”

In addition to the dairy operation, Miller cash crops 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. They also grow alfalfa hay for their cows. He says about 250 acres is used to grow feed for the cows – a decision that is based both on economics and principles.

“I have the land base to grow our own feed, and I like knowing exactly what they’re eating,” Miller says. “And I’m the fifth generation on this farm, and we’ve always grown our own high quality feed.”

Miller’s great-grandfather, Sam Bisset, was credited with being the first dairyman in Canada to put milk in a glass bottle. His grandfather, Gordon Bisset, was the first president of the Huron County Holstein Club. His father shipped cream with Holsteins until 1959. At this time John Miller Sr. was advised, by his father-in-law Gordon Bisset, to sell the Holsteins and buy Jerseys as the demand for Jersey milk was high.

Growing a market

Miller’s Dairy products are available in more than 83 locations near Creemore, and with the recent purchase of a second delivery truck, the team is looking to grow distribution. Currently Miller’s Dairy is in operation one day a week, processing approximately half of the farm’s milk production – with the rest being sold into Ontario’s milk pool. In time, Miller hopes to grow the market for on-farm processed products to two days a week, or 100 per cent of the farm’s milk.

“Sobeys has been really good to us, and several local independent stores,” Miller says. “We appreciate their interest in stocking local food. This wouldn’t have been feasible ten years ago. The local food movement still struggles in some larger urban centres.”

Lessons learned

What is Miller’s biggest lesson in all of this?

“It’s a very steep learning curve, and there’s more work than I had anticipated,” he says. “Just because you make a really good product, it doesn’t mean people will know about it or buy it. We enjoy marketing our Jersey milk and our customers want to meet the farmer. This creates challenges in balancing the workload of two businesses.”

Currently the company focuses its marketing efforts on in-store samplings, usually headed up by Shawn, Marie and Shawn’s girlfriend Ashton. They field about one or two calls per week from stores hoping to carry the product, and they receive numerous pieces of fan mail each week from customers who love the farm fresh Jersey milk.

“We’re going to grow, but we plan to grow slowly and carefully,” Miller says. “We’re focused on maintaining the quality of our product. We are the only Jersey dairy in Canada selling fluid milk. That’s what sets us apart.”

In 2013, Miller’s Dairy won the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. For more information about Miller’s Dairy visit www.millersdairy.com.

 

This article is one in a series produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario. The stories highlight innovative initiatives in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship in Ontario agriculture. To submit a profile idea, email info@farmfoodcare.org

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