OKEANA, Ohio — Emily Mullen isn’t the type to wear jewelry, but she does wear one piece all the time. It’s a necklace with a mustard seed charm. She’s worn several over the years. Farm life is rough on jewelry.
Just like the mustard seed in the Bible that was said to grow into a tree so big that birds could perch in its branches, her once far-off dream to run her family’s dairy farm has grown, too.
Mullen, 24, took over operations of the family dairy farm from her father, Tim Mullen, and transformed it into a modern facility where they bottle their own milk and produce milk-based soaps and lotions. She recently moved her herd into a new free stall barn with a robotic milker and will soon move her creamery into the brand new space.
The journey hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s what she has been called to do, Emily said. When times have been hard, she remembers the mustard seed.
“This was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but I did it all because I love these cows,” she said. “This is what God wanted me to do. All you need is the faith of a mustard seed.”
Emily ran the first batch of chocolate milk through the creamery on Nov. 27, 2020. It was the culmination of years of work and planning.
Emily is the third of four sisters who grew up on the family farm in Butler County, Ohio. She says that growing up she was discouraged from pursuing farming as a career. Her father ran the family’s dairy farm on the aging farm, milking about 100 Holsteins.
Emily said her father didn’t want her to have to work as hard as he did to make a living. He agrees.
“You’ve heard her speak. She could make a living speaking and work a whole lot less,” Tim said.
But in high school, she was one of the few students in her school who lived on a farm. She realized there was a huge gap in knowledge about food systems and agriculture between her and her peers. She began doing public speaking through her local FFA chapter, and her dream for the future of the family farm began to take shape.
“When you’re growing up on a farm, sometimes all you see is the hard work,” she said. “Instead of seeing myself as an outsider, I started seeing myself as an authority that needed to speak up.”
Emily attended Ohio State University ATI and graduated in 2019 with an associate’s degree in dairy science. College was eye-opening for Emily. She knew she wanted to come home and open a creamery where they bottle milk on the farm.
“I could tell you a decent amount about cows, but I didn’t know the first thing about bottling milk,” she said.
While at school, she interned at Baker’s Golden Dairy, in New Waterford, Ohio, a Columbiana County dairy farm that bottles milk on-farm and makes other dairy products.
By the time she got out of school and came home, she had a plan. She didn’t start by bottling milk. That was too risky to jump into selling such a highly perishable product. She wanted to build their brand with something shelf-stable.
She called her mom to talk through her idea of making milk-based soaps to start her business. It turned out that her mother had just been at a women’s Bible study where they learned how to make goat’s milk soap. Emily took it as a sign that she was on the right track.
“There’s a lot of Jesus in this operation,” she said.
Through a farmer connection, she found a creamery for sale in a construction trailer. She rolled it home, and it took a year for her to get it inspected and ready to go.
Emily burned the candle at both ends for a while to bottle milk and do all the other daily farm tasks required when running a farm.
“I would get done milking, take a shower, work in the creamery all night, go out and milk the cows and then roll right into my next day,” she said.
It came to a head one day when she had a big order to fill but also needed to haul manure. She asked her younger sister, Elizabeth, to stay in the creamery and watch the milk temperature in the pasteurizer for 30 minutes. That was all she needed but “those 30 minutes were precious to me.”
It turned out that working in the controlled environment of the creamery, where she can work at her own pace, was a good fit for her sister, who is immunocompromised. Now Elizabeth runs the creamery three days a week.
Emily’s mother, Amy, and older sister, Mandy, help make soaps. Her other sister, Amber, helps out in the creamery one day a week.
Eventually, the creamery business was built up enough that it made sense to build that new dream facility. Emily had the cash flow to make it all work. Funding for that came through Farm Credit Mid-America’s Growing Forward program, which allows young and beginning farmers to get capital with relaxed underwriting standards. Emily worked closely with Amy Weaver, a senior financial officer with Farm Credit Mid-America, to get into the program.
The Growing Forward program also provides resources, mentorship and educational opportunities.
“If we’re just giving them money, we’re not doing enough,” said Dakota Everts, head of customer engagements and Growing Forward for Farm Credit Mid-America.
To graduate from the program, farmers have to attend a two-day conference called Know to Grow, where they dive into the nitty gritty of farm financials and explore their own farm business. Once completed, the farmer locks in their loan rate for the life of the loan.
The cows settled into the new barn about a month ago. They downsized to about 60 cows in the milking herd to fit the robot. The new building will also house a new creamery, retail store and educational area.
Emily’s roots in farming run deep. Her great-grandfather bought the farm in 1898. Her father grew up in the house where he would later raise his family. Tim said his first job on the farm was filling water troughs for the hogs when he was 5.
In addition to the hogs, the family raised laying hens and dairy cows. His mother had an egg route where she would deliver eggs to local houses each Friday.
When Tim was 14, his father died from cancer, leaving him to run the farm and become the man of the house. He had to take care of his sisters and mothers, so he got out of raising hogs and chickens and focused his business on dairy cows.
“Farming is always what I wanted to do,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”
He and his wife, Amy, had four daughters. In addition to their daughters, they now have five grandchildren.
When Emily came back from college, she wanted to jump ahead immediately into the future. Since none of her sisters were interested in running the farm, and her dad was getting older, she wanted a place where if she needed to, she could run things herself. She doesn’t like asking for help.
Her father was hesitant, she said. He wasn’t supportive of her dream because he was scared, she said.
“He told me that I was crazy and that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.
“She got out of college, came home and said I’m doing everything wrong,” he said. “I said, ‘I raised four girls, have a good wife, have no debt. What more do you want?’”
He thought it would be too much for Emily, to take on all that debt to build new. When his father died, he was left with his father’s debts to repay. When he owned everything outright, it was a point of pride for him to never get in that situation again.
“When you’ve been doing something for 55 years, change is hard,” Tim said. “But watching that robot work is amazing.”
Seeing is believing for him. The father and daughter still butt heads sometimes, but Tim has his daughter’s back. She runs things primarily during the day, but he’s “my go-to to bounce ideas off of. He’s not my yes man. He’s a great person to keep me in check.”
Though her new building is nearing completion, and things are moving in the right direction, there are still hard days. Some days she wants to cry. Emily wrote a couple of Bible verses on posts in her new barn to keep her motivated. One is Ephesians 6:12. The other is Matthew 17:20: “If you have faith like a mustard seed, nothing to you will be impossible.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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