Bradley Johnston brings boutique dairy farming to Mills River

KISS ME: Bradley Johnston has worked with cows all his life, so it makes sense that the Mills River farmer feels as comfortable clowning around with the herd as he does with his human friends. Photo by Kendra Topalian
KISS ME: Bradley Johnston has worked with cows all his life, so it makes sense that the Mills River farmer feels as comfortable clowning around with the herd as he does with his human friends. Photo by Kendra Topalian

If you’re in Mills River and want to talk dairy farming, you go see S.O.B. But don’t be alarmed: Sweet Ol’ Bradley is the locals’ name for Bradley Johnston, a third-generation farmer who knows the industry inside and out. After all, he’s been milking cows for more than 40 years, and his family’s been at it for over a century.

“We’ve been around here two or three days,” he jokes.

Johnston’s grandfather originally cultivated land that’s now part of Biltmore Estate. After being bought out by George Vanderbilt, the patriarch moved his farm and family to the Avery’s Creek community and then, around 1917, began selling fresh milk to the public. Johnston’s father followed in his father’s footsteps, taking over the farm when the elder retired. And from a young age, Johnston himself chose to follow the same hoof-trodden path.

Or rather, it chose him, along with two of his brothers. Farming, says Johnston, “gets in your blood, and you really just don’t get it out. Our earliest remembrance was helping our dad farm. It’s all we ever wanted to do.”

Out with the old…

When their father died in 1995, Johnston and his brothers took over the family business, which had moved to Mills River in the ’70s. They ran one of the largest operations in the Southeast for decades before deciding to shut it down last year.

Adopting their dad’s more-is-more mentality, the brothers milked upward of 1,200 Holstein cows, seeking to generate as much product as the market could handle. They sold all their milk to the Milkco bottling plant in West Asheville, which produces private-label dairy for retailers including Ingles and its Laura Lynn line.

That setup worked well for quite a while, notes Johnston. But at some point his perspective changed, and he wanted to do things differently — for himself and his cows.

“Everything’s gotten bigger,” he observes. These days, the industry “wants to produce with less people, less farms, more animals, more concentration; I just got tired of it. Been there, done that, got my T-shirt. I’m ready to go do something else.”

That something else has turned out to be a smaller-scale operation using more traditional practices. Last summer, Johnston closed on a piece of prime grazing land in Mills River; bought a new, much smaller herd of Jersey cows; and set to work creating his very own line of farm-fresh dairy products. He milked his first cow in November.

The shift opened the window to direct-to-consumer sales. “The way we’re doing it now is just a lot more laid-back,” he says. “Less stress on not only us but also the cattle.”

In with the new — and A2

Although the Mills River Creamery and Dairy is a new venture for Johnston, the approach is familiar.

“It’s just a step back in time for me,” he remarks. “I grew up on a farm that had 50 cows on 25 acres. … I’ve come full circle: I’m back to 35 acres and 40 cows, where I started when I was 10 or 11 years old.” Just as it did when he was fresh in the business, farming feels fun again.

And speaking of history, his cattle came from George Cecil, the grandson of George W. Vanderbilt. Johnston says Vanderbilt registered his first Jersey in the 1890s, when he was establishing the estate, making it the nation’s third-oldest Jersey herd.

To Johnston, shifting from Holsteins to Jerseys made sense. They’re good grazing animals, he says, and they handle heat stress better than their commercial counterparts. They also have a much higher prevalence of the A2 gene, which is said to make the milk more easily digestible and perhaps even safe to consume by those who are lactose-intolerant. Cecil allowed Johnston to test the available cattle for the gene before making his purchase, ensuring that his entire herd is A2.

“We thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to go back to the pasture and grass-fed with non-GMO grains, we might as well see if it’s a possibility to add an A2 product to it,’” says Johnston, who grows his own nongenetically modified corn for supplemental feed.

Ultimately, Johnston feels he’s tailored his new line of dairy products to fit his new market: people interested in healthy local food. “Our customers,” he explains, “are very aware of what they want to eat.”

Interest in local dairy products is growing, says Molly Nicholie of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “The switch to direct sales can be very difficult for local dairies, with high overhead costs to meet food safety regulations,” notes Nicholie, the program director for the nonprofit’s local food campaign. “But consumer demand is making this more of a possibility and giving farmers an important opportunity to get a premium price for their products and not be at the mercy of national milk pricing.”

In addition, she continues, “It’s great to see farms like Mills River Creamery and Dairy … certify their product as Appalachian Grown and authentically local.”

Milking the menu

In meeting such demand, Johnston has broken new ground, setting his operation apart from other WNC producers. Besides coming from its own herd of grass-fed cows, the creamery’s whole milk is not homogenized and is pasteurized just enough to satisfy state requirements. In other words, it’s as farm-fresh and close to raw milk as you can legally buy in North Carolina.

“As close as you’re going to get without buying your own cow,” quips Johnston. “You’d have to get up and milk it yourself twice a day to get anything any closer.”

Because it’s not your average supermarket milk, however, some customers may face a learning curve: It needs a good shaking before being poured into a glass, and due to its higher fat content, recipes may require some trial and error. But once customers have made the change, they’re happy, Johnston reports.

That’s definitely the case for restaurateurs Hector and Aimee Diaz, who own Salsas, Modesto and Bomba. At Bomba, they use Johnston’s products for everything from lattes to pastries — everywhere that dairy plays a part.

“It’s like a guitar player picking up a new guitar,” says Aimee. “You have to make an adjustment, but with a good instrument, you can put out a good product. This milk is a beautiful instrument for us.”

Aimee adds that the family’s business philosophy has always focused on building a thriving local economy, so buying the new creamery’s products as soon as they became available just made sense.

Those products can also be found on the menus and shelves of more than 20 other Western North Carolina outlets, including tailgate markets, The Dripolator Coffeehouse, Strada Italiano, Earth Fare, Hopey & Co. and the Food Matters Market.

The farm has its own retail space, too: The Mills River Creamery and Local Market is just down the road from the dairy and also offers assorted ice cream flavors. Right next door is Nancy Lynn’s Diner and Pizzeria, which Johnston co-owns with his partner, Nancy Waycaster. Johnston spends a great deal of time in both spaces; you’ll know he’s there from the friendly calls of “S.O.B.”

Waycaster, a Mills River native, runs the two eateries single-handedly, stresses Johnston, who says her job is harder by far than his. Besides featuring the farm’s dairy products and eggs from Johnston’s flock of free-range chickens, the diner serves locally made sausage and seasonal Mills River Valley produce.

The land of milk and, well, more milk

Right now, the dairy’s production facility sits just behind the retail market’s ice cream counter. But Johnston says the fledgling enterprise has begun to hit its stride, and plans are already underway to move all bottling and processing to the dairy itself. That will enable him to expand the product line and begin hosting agritourism visitors, particularly school groups.

Johnston currently produces A2 milk, buttermilk, chocolate milk and butter. There’s also heavy cream, though some of the milk for that comes from outside producers. Once the production facility moves and Johnston has room for more equipment, he hopes to double his herd to meet the growing demand and support experiments with additional offerings like yogurt and cheese.

The planned on-site facility will let visitors experience the process from start to finish: meet the cows, see where they’re milked, and discover how that milk gets into a bottle and then into their hands.

“It’s about interacting with and learning about the dairy side of agriculture,” Johnston explains, noting that most local on-farm opportunities focus on apples and other crops. And though the new operation does allow for a slower pace, Johnston remains as ambitious as ever — and ready to share his life’s passion with his community.

The Mills River Creamery and Local Market is at 4193 Haywood Road in Mills River. To learn more, visit millsrivercreamery.com.

SHARE
About Maggie Cramer
Writer, Editor, Communications Specialist

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

3 thoughts on “Bradley Johnston brings boutique dairy farming to Mills River

  1. think critically

    It’s routine in the dairy industry to keep the cows in a nearly unending state of pregnancy to keep the milk flowing. Because the milk is to be sold, and not for the mouths of calves, the babies are forcefully removed from their mothers soon after birth. It’s truly heartrending to see new mothers bellowing for their calves after watching their newborns dragged away. The baby boys are generally destined to become veal, they are a byproduct of the dairy industry.

    Anyone who tells you that cows don’t suffer emotionally when their babies are taken away from them is in denial. Maternal deprivation is one of the hidden ingredients in every glass of cow’s milk. Why support this cruelty?

    Cow’s milk, like the milk of any species, is designed for infants, not adults. An abundance of healthy, cruelty-free plant-based options are now available. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and other kinds of non-dairy milk represent a full 10 percent of all fluid milk sales in the United States. Even Ben and Jerry’s, Breyers, and Häagen Dazs offer vegan ice creams that are sold in regular groceries.

    It’s the 21st Century, let’s move forward and take cruelty off of the dinner table!

    • farmerfootz

      I completely agree with you. You are talking about the Dairy Industry, which is one of the cruelest, most inhumane food production models out there. The Dairy Industry is completely and always will be always based and driven by greed, and the desire to get more cash. Cash, cash, cash, and, well, OH!! MORE CASH!!! Cash is all the Dairy Industry is worried about. They could care less about a mother cow missing her baby. OF COURSE SHE WILL MISS IT!!!!! The Dairy Industry, and honestly, all industrial methods of Farming are cruel and unusual in their treatment of animals. They treat animals as if they are machines and they are not. They are animals. The Industrial Farming industry is wicked to the core.
      Now, ThinkCritically, you need to understand that there is a humane way to farm. There is a right way, and there is a wrong way to farm. Based on your article I would encourage you to visit PolyFace Farm website: http://www.polyfacefarms.com/
      This is a farm to be proud of. They realize that animals need to be treated with respect. They need to live in an environment that they were designed to live in. If they do so, they will provide food, and yes, milk, that is not only a pleasure for them to give to us, but it is healthy and building for our bodies to consume such food. It is proven, adults, on grass-fed, A2A2, gmo free, chemical free, humanely raised milk, have, by the grace of God, been healed from many diseases including cancer. Cancer can be cured, cancer happens because the immune system is weakened to a point where it cannot function correctly. If you build up your immune system, stop eating junk food, and get into a healthier lifestyle, your body will heal from cancer. Mind you the Cancer industry does not want you to know this because they make the dollars by your support!

  2. Rebecca Glenn Nesbitt

    I am not a milk drinker; however, stay away from soy milk. The methods used to process this stuff are potentially poisonous. There’s plenty of information concerning the unhealthy side effects of soy milk – for one, way too much estrogen. Check it out for yourselves.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.