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.