ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Running a successful ice cream shop takes some of the same skills as running a farm. Kirke Porterfield, of Kirke’s Homemade Ice Cream, would know. He’s done both.
For seven generations, his family has farmed in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and he spent years focused on raising cattle and growing crops including corn, oats, wheat and hay. After some time farming, he and his wife, Judi, decided to start making ice cream and open an ice cream shop in 1992.
Starting any business can be an uphill battle at first, even if you’re not also running a farm. For a while, Kirke spent his days farming and his nights making ice cream.
“I would say, eat, drink and sleep it,” Kirke said. “In the beginning, you just have to focus everything you have.”
It’s paid off for him and his family. Now, 30 years later, he’s transitioned to focus on the ice cream shop and turned the farm over to the next generation.
“The people you meet — it’s just been great,” he said. “Everybody likes the ice cream. It brings you back to when you were little.”
The family’s history in both farming and ice cream goes back a lot further than Kirke and Judi. In 1926, Kirke’s mother’s side of the family had a farm on state Route 250. They started boarding people at the farmhouse as part of their business, and then started selling meals and making ice cream later on. In 1943, they switched to focus just on the ice cream.
Kirke’s cousins took over the family business eventually, but Kirke was interested in starting his own. That meant he had to learn how to make ice cream.
“Most ice cream people are pretty secretive,” Kirke said.
He had some experience with making ice cream from working with his grandfather, and because his dad used to make and sell ice cream near Marietta. Kirke met someone who sold ice cream flavorings, and offered to teach him how to make ice cream if Kirke would buy flavorings from him.
“I said, ‘if the ice cream’s good, we’ve got a deal,’” Kirke said. It was, and they did. “I’ve always liked cooking, so the ice cream, I kind of fell into that.”
Kirke remembers the exact day the ice cream shop opened: Aug. 12, 1992. In some ways, it’s changed since then. He’s switched to different recipes for some flavors, to adapt to supply chain challenges, and he only recently got the name painted on the side of the building. He’s also added the “cow van,” a van with freezers that he uses to take ice cream to events.
But in other ways, it remains much the same. The ice cream maker he uses at the shop is the same one he bought in 1992.
“We bought it new in ‘92, and I’ve had no problems with it whatsoever,” Kirke said. “I tell people, if the pope wanted ice cream tomorrow, I’d make it today, because the machine’s that dependable.”
Getting the ice cream business started was a hectic time. At that point, Kirke and Judi were still running the farm. Their children were all still in school and in other programs like 4-H. It was a lot of back and forth between the farm and the ice cream shop. Sometimes, Kirke was in a hay field until 9 p.m. and making ice cream until 3 a.m. Now, things have calmed down.
“On the farm, your hands are always dirty,” Kirke said. “As the boys got older, they did a lot of the farm work; I did the ice cream.”
About 10 years ago, Kirke fully turned the farm over to the next generation. Now one of his sons, Brian, runs the farm. Another, Kevin, runs a metal fabrication shop from the farm, mainly working on equipment for the oil and gas industry.
Since taking over the farm, Brian has focused heavily on rotational grazing and managing the pastures. He started that work back in 2003, after he graduated from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute.
For a while, he worked off the farm at the county soil and water conservation district, and then at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Over the years, he started leasing more land and expanded the herd until it was at a point where he could stay on the farm full-time.
“I mostly enjoy working for myself,” Brian said.
Now, he manages about 3,000 acres of owned and leased land, and about 325 cows on his beef cow-calf operation. He still grows hay, but is able to sell most of it since the cattle graze year-round. Porterfield Farms is G.A.P.-certified through the Global Animal Partnership, and the cattle sell online either to feedlots, or to people who finish them out on grass, after they are weaned.
For Kirke, letting go of the farm management was important. He knows some people have a hard time turning things over to the next generation, and also knows some people who, at 50, still don’t get much of a say in decisions about their family business.
“I never want it to be that way,” he said. “So I just say, ‘Brian, you’re in charge, here you go.’”
That approach has worked well for them. It’s been a fairly smooth transition, and for Brian, having the time to expand the business before coming back full time also helped.
“I just started leasing land and some equipment, and as I grew, then I started buying equipment, adding cattle, and just transitioned that way,” he said. Down the road, he plans to add some more land as it becomes available, and to try to expand the herd by continuing to manage the pastures better.
The last couple of years have brought some challenges for the ice cream shop. Supply chain issues have made it harder to get some ingredients, so they’ve had to update recipes in some cases. Some of the companies they used to order supplies from have gone out of business, so they’ve had to find new places to get their supplies from.
“But we’ve been real fortunate with help,” Kirke said. “Employees have not been an issue at all. It’s been a blessing.”
He thinks there’s a few reasons for that. It’s more relaxed than some fast food jobs, and the Porterfields do their best to keep it a fun environment. The shop can get busy at certain times — for example, Sunday afternoons. But other times, it’s slow enough that students working there can do their homework.
And one thing that hasn’t changed is the ice cream making process.
“We make it the same as we always have,” Kirke said.
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