SHEPHERDS, NC — Dr. Bradley Mills’ home farm here in Iredell County has been in his family since 1935. Now it’s the headquarters of a rapidly growing all-natural, pasture-raised beef operation, Mills Family Farm, which supplies locally raised beef to consumers throughout the Carolinas and Virginia.
The origination of this business coincided with Mills’ marriage to Nicole, his wife of almost seven years.
“We had family and friends asking for meat,” said Nicole, “and it grew from there.” Within a year, as the operation expanded, the couple acquired a meat handler’s license. Today, the business has grown to the point where it keeps Nicole, who has a master’s in agriculture and has worked for other companies in the industry, occupied full-time.
This year, the Mills are looking to market about 600 head of cattle, up from about 500 head last year. They distribute about two-thirds of their production through two wholesalers, who market Mills Family meat to restaurants and other commercial buyers in the southern mid-Atlantic.
The remainder of their production is sold through their farm store, to customers like Cody Bender of Huntersville.
“I like that it’s local and hormone-free,” Bender said. He also appreciates being able to choose individual cuts rather than committing to quarters or halves of an animal. Bender takes advantage of the bulk pricing the Mills offer to retail customers who buy 60 or more pounds at once.
The farm has been raising beef cattle since the 1970’s, when Mills’ grandparents got out of dairying. Mills moved to the farm after graduating from NC State as a veterinarian. At that time, he went to work with Dr. Ben Shelton at Rocky Creek Veterinarian Services. While with Shelton, Mills was a milk quality consultant and provided large animals services. On the home farm, he kept a cow-calf operation.
After a few years, he became a consulting veterinarian with Pfizer – now Zoetis – working with large dairies across the Southeast.
“I get to see some of the best dairies in the Southeast,” Mills said. The job also takes him on the road, keeping him away from home during calving, so the cows were sold.
His next farm business was raising Holstein bulls. “Everything was guardrail, concrete and electric fence,” he said. “The bulls would tear everything up.”
“When I met him,” Nicole said, “he had 380 dairy bulls on the farm. That was a lot of testosterone.”
Within a five-year period, starting in 2006, Mills marketed about 1500 Holstein bulls. In the aftermath of the 2009 milk crisis, however, that business dwindled.
Luckily, it was just at that time that the Mills were inundated with requests for local beef.
“Our commercial food system is the safest in the world,” Mills said, “but some consumers want to have a relationship with their farmer.”
The Mills farm is located just outside of Mooresville, which itself is near Lake Norman and Charlotte, providing the farm with an ample supply of consumers hungry for local beef.
One of the Mills regular retail customers is Wilton Connor, who has been buying beef from the Mills for about five years.
“When I first tried a [Mills Family Farm] steak,” Connor said, “I said, ‘Whoa, this is fantastic.’
Now, I have friends who love to come to my house just about dinner time when they know I’m cooking steak,” he continued.
The Mills control the quality of their product first of all by starting with good animals. They buy good-framed steers – mostly Angus and Angus crosses – at about 500 pounds, from producers throughout North Carolina. The steers are then put on pasture and provided with just enough supplements, but no ground corn, to allow the animals to gain two and a half pounds per day.
The program results in steers, which are taken to slaughter at a young age weighing 1250 to 1350 pounds and yielding carcasses with good marbling. To improve tenderness, the carcasses are dry-aged for 14 days.
In addition to beef and veal, the Mills also sell chicken, pork, honey, eggs, and milk from other area farmers, offering their farm store as a sales point for those producers.
The farm store is open two days a week, Friday and Saturday. In previous years, the Mills sold at farmers’ markets, but as their operation and brand has grown, they now sell retail solely from the farm.
Mills attributes the success of the operation to Nicole.
“My wife’s a great salesperson,” he said.
Thanks to both of their efforts, their consumers are eating locally produced meat that offers a high-quality eating experience: A recipe anyone would love.