KINSMAN, Ohio — The key to the agriculture business for a Trumbull County farm is having a product that stands out from others.
Aaron and Melissa Miller, owners of the Miller Livestock Co., want people to know that, yes, farmers can make a profit and even people who aren’t born into a farm can operate a business like theirs and prosper.
“They can make a living doing this,” said Aaron.
The Miller family has been raising livestock almost since they bought their farm in 1986. At first, they raised club calves and dairy heifers.
Then in 1999, Aaron and Melissa Miller were given an opportunity many families would love to have in their lives — a blank canvas.
The Millers were selling their hardware store in Kinsman and they began pondering where their next steps would take them.
The couple were raising three young children at the time, so it was not time for them to retire, but to look for a different way to make a living. After all, they would have three children in college at one time down the road.
Aaron’s dad had farmed part-time while Aaron was growing up and Aaron had been a 4-H participant with livestock projects.
“He considered it his dream job,” said Melissa.
And so, the couple began farming full-time in 1999 and have each carved a section of the business out for themselves. Aaron concentrates on the livestock portion of the business and Melissa likes the customer/marketing end of the business.
Together, they specialize in grass-fed livestock and providing local food.
Their daughter, Hannah, is 23; and son Sam is 20, and Daniel, 18. They come home on the weekends to help out on the farm. The farm also employs one part-time employee, Merlin Yoder, three times a week to assist with farm chores.
The Millers say their customers are people who have made eating healthy a priority, people who want to know where their food is coming from, and want to put a person’s face with it, and they keep returning because of the taste.
The farm has three customer bases, which they say is split evenly.
One-third of the customer base are consumers who want to purchase a quarter of a beef or half of a hog.
“They are the old-fashioned customers who we have been dealing with for a number of years. They are repeat customers,” said Melissa.
Another third of the Millers’ product is sold at local farm markets. They primarily go to the Howland Farmers Market to sell their product. Most customers there are purchasing meat by the piece rather than by the half of beef.
And the last third of their business comes from Cleveland-area restaurants — and is an area the Millers say has great potential to grow. Currently, they sell meat to one restaurant on the east side, one on the west side and one in the middle of Cleveland.
One restaurant, Fire Food and Drink on the square in Shaker Heights, is using beef raised by the Millers in dishes they prepare for their menu.
Melissa said the restaurant started out purchasing ground beef for hamburgers once a week and now buys half a beef every couple of weeks.
“There is more and more demand for grass-fed meat by restaurants,” said Aaron. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. I think this movement is really just starting.”
The couple admits that the demand has been so great they haven’t been able to keep up with it in the past six months. But if they increase their meat production, the restaurant business is where they are going to pursue more customers.
The Millers said the combination of markets diversifies their risk and creates greater profit potential. They said they learned that when the economy collapsed a couple of years ago.
“We tried plenty of ways that didn’t work, but the combination gives us enough profits to be successful and to gain satisfaction out of our work,” said Melissa.
Their operation had been primarily a custom cut, or “freezer beef” market, which meant consumers would purchase a quarter or half a beef. However, when the economy fell, fewer consumers could afford to buy the larger quantity of meat, and switched to purchasing meat piece by piece.
“The diversity in our operation was created as a result of customer demand,” said Aaron.
Beef, pork, lamb
The Millers now feed out between 80-90 head of cattle, 70 sheep and 100 hogs a year on their 90 acres of grass. The family also raises pastured-based turkeys. This year, they raised 100 turkeys, which were sold out two weeks before Thanksgiving.
The couples raise Katahdin sheep, a breed that is parasite resistant, low maintenance and unique in that the sheep shed their hair, which means shearing is not necessary. They also have a mild flavor when butchered.
The couple raise English breeds of cattle, including Herefords and Angus, and Berkshire hogs, which is a heritage breed.
The grass is a blend of late-maturing orchardgrass and Alice clover. They finish the animals out on a high protein grass to increase the fat level, which is needed in beef for flavor.
Grazing is not easy
Aaron said intensive grazing management is not just something that comes easy to farmers.
“It is a balance of science and art to provide quality meat to consumers. The most important part of the process is finishing them on a high protein grass,” said Aaron.
The Millers say that while their business is growing, thanks to the customers, they still feel it is important to educate consumers where the meat comes from.
Melissa said she explains to customers that, while the livestock is raised for meat, the family does enjoy raising the livestock.
She said she realizes that by talking to the public, many people don’t understand where their food comes from. She has had people not believe that chickens lay eggs.
Melissa added it is important for farmers to tell the story of food and where it comes from, especially locally grown food.
“It makes it that much more important to tell people that we believe in the way we do things to raise livestock,” said Melissa. “I try to express to them how hard farmers must work to bring food to their table.”
The couple also enjoys working with chefs who create dishes throughout the year depending the food available locally.
“I enjoy working with someone who tries to work with a farmer so that seasonality is explained to the consumer. They have to understand this is not the time of year for strawberries and asparagus. It’s the time of the year when we should be eating squash,” Melissa said.