Life Goal: Become an Expert Cheesemaker
Sue Miller and her family run Birchrun Hills Farm, a first-generation, family-owned dairy farm in the highlands of Birchrunville in southeast Pennsylvania. While contemplating how she would make the farm sustainable into the future, she decided to embark on a new venture and begin making cheese with high-quality milk from her cows.
With help from the Chester County Economic Development Council’s (CCEDC) AgConnect, Sue enrolled in a cheesemaking course offered by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and got to work. In September 2018, the Millers opened their new cheesemaking facility on their farm to offer fresh and aged handcrafted cheese to the greater Mid-Atlantic and beyond. We caught up with Sue, a farmer — and now expert cheesemaker — to learn more about her business and how the Millers work smart and live happy in Pennsylvania.
What made you want to pursue cheese-making?
My husband always wanted to farm and started milking cows when he was 27 years old. I met him and fell in love with the cows, the farm, and my husband! Farming is not only a career; it’s a way of life. Milking cows, caring for young stock, and farming the land with my family became my passion. As first-generation farmers, we didn’t have multigenerational equity in the land, so when the dairy economy began to fluctuate from one extreme to another, we often wondered how our farm would survive into the future. One morning I woke up and thought, “I’m going to learn how to make cheese.”
PASA was offering a cheese-making class in western Pennsylvania taught by a well-known cheesemaker, Peter Dixon, from Vermont. I told PASA that I absolutely had to join this class because the future of my farm depended on it. I was able attend the class and learned so much from Dixon about quality cheesemaking. Shortly after, a neighboring farm just four miles down the road from our farm learned that we were interested in making cheese and offered to rent us their vacant cheese-making “house” for our needs. Our cows were producing high-quality milk, so this transition to crafting artisanal cheeses has been instrumental to our farm’s future. After 11 years of working in a rented facility, we finally moved in to our new facility this past September — just 100 feet from our cows. The connection to the land, the cows, and the milk is integral to our cheesemaking process.
What has helped to make this dream into a reality?
The CCEDC’s AgConnect has been a significant resource in growing my dairy and farmstead cheese business. They’ve provided workforce training and development opportunities such as cheesemaking courses, food safety classes, grading classes, resources in animal husbandry, and farm business management. Furthermore, AgConnect has introduced the potential for farmers and agricultural businesses to increase their knowledge and even collaborate on projects.
I’m also excited for the new Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program, where the state has committed $5 million to help Pennsylvania dairy farmers take advantage of new opportunities. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. There is an economic and cultural impact if small dairy farms disappear from the landscape of Pennsylvania. This program is an opportunity to help farms prosper into the future.
What makes you proud to operate in Pennsylvania?
We’re located just 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Chester County is known as the bread basket of Philadelphia; we have fertile land to grow and produce healthy vibrant food for a larger city. I love driving into Philadelphia for the farmers’ markets, making deliveries to chefs and retailers, and sharing our cheese at events. Philadelphia is an amazing city filled with a community of foodies who want to know and support the local farm community.
What we do as farmers is representative of the land. We have beautiful farmland, and the result of taking care of that land comes through in the cheese we make. I’m proud PA is investing in the dairy industry so that the next generation will have opportunities to work and grow in the agricultural industry. We have a bright future ahead of us.
Interested in starting your own business, or looking for advice on your current business operation? Visit the PA Business One-Stop Shop website to learn more about operating and growing a business in PA. Continue to stay up-to-date with all of Pennsylvania’s latest news and program announcements by signing up for our monthly e-newsletter or following us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Dairy gal Sue Miller crafts award-winning farmstead cheeses for Birchrun Hills Farm. She is a first-generation dairy farmer milking 80 cows with her family in Chester Springs, PA. Birchrun Hills Farm makes raw milk cheeses from their dairy herd and direct markets the cheese through farmers’ markets, restaurants, and specialty cheese shops in the Mid-Atlantic. Sue also cohosts the Collective Creamery podcast, where she helps craft the conversation around American artisan cheese.