by Enrico Villamaino

The USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program was created to help ag producers enter value-added activities to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities, and increase producer income. In selecting awardees, the USDA focuses on beginning and/or socially-disadvantaged farmers, small and medium sized farms, ranches structured as family farms and farm and ranch cooperatives.

Gayle Mitchell, co-owner and operator of Mitch-Hill Dairy Farm & Creamery in Venus, PA, spoke to Country Folks about her family’s business and its recently awarded VAPG grant.

Gayle and her husband Lance purchased their farm in 1995 and quickly realized that dairy farms are difficult to sustain, especially when starting from scratch. “Neither of us were raised on a dairy farm. We didn’t inherit a farm, nor could we work alongside family while getting on our feet,” Gayle explained. “We purchased a herd of cattle and most of the existing equipment. Much of what we purchased was in disrepair, which is not atypical for a dairy farm.” The couple decided early on that they wanted to bottle their own milk in an attempt to exercise some control over a wildly fluctuating market.

Mitch-Hill Dairy milks between 50 and 60 cows on their 110 acres. The herd is mostly registered red and white Holsteins and Guernseys, with a couple of Ayrshires and a Jersey thrown in for good measure. The dairy bottles creamline pasteurized milk and flavored milks.

Lance is the only full-time employee – but they do have a lot of family volunteerism. The couple’s son Caine, their daughter Quinn and Gayle all work the farm. They also have some wonderful neighbors who are like family, pitching in when it’s time to plant or harvest crops.

“Within the last two years, we started to utilize the first afternoon milking help we’ve ever had,” Gayle said. “Over the years, we have hired a number of local teenagers who have graduated and moved on. When they are able, they do come and milk in between their many activities. They have been such a blessing.” She gives special thanks to Andrew, Jeremy, Josh, River, Trevor, Justin, Ellabay, Mariner and Cody for their work over the years.

Making way for ‘moothies’

(L – R) Mitch-Hill owners Gayle Lance Mitchell’s grandchildren Romy (6), Griffin (2), Freya (2) and Farryn (4) Mitchell test the bumper of the new delivery truck in Venus, PA. Photo courtesy of Mitch-Hill Dairy Farm & Creamery

Gayle said the biggest change that’s been made on the farm was the addition of the bottling operation. Their market reach comprises about a 50-mile radius.

“We sell here on the farm in our little retail space. It is always open and our patrons use an ‘honor box’ to pay for what they take,” Gayle said. “This way, there is constant access to milk for anyone who needs it. People are honest – we have never been disappointed.” They also sell their products at four local farmers markets and in about a dozen little stores and restaurants in their area.

Thanks to the USDA’s VAPG, they now offer drinkable yogurt “moothies.” The farm is currently working on creating the labels. They’ve used some of the money from the grant on graphics for their delivery truck and to establish a website.

“Originally, we were awarded one [value-added grant] in 2016. Unfortunately, we were never able to utilize it,” Gayle said. “The future prices caused our funding package to collapse three days before closing. Despite filing for an extension, we were unable to create our bottling operation within the timespan. It was heartbreaking to see that grant go unused. We felt like our dream was going to be perpetually out of reach.

“Enter the PDIP (Pennsylvania Dairy Improvement Plan), which gave us the funds to initiate the purchase of a shipping container and a self-contained processing plant. Our bank jumped on board, and we closed on the financial package just as the world shut down for the pandemic.

“Despite things going crazy, things were humming right along here,” Gayle continued. “In January 2021 we processed our first bottle of milk, and we haven’t looked back! As summer 2021 was approaching, we thought about how useful the money in the value-added grant would have been at that moment now that we actually had a plant. We needed so many things to grow the business, like a website, signage and maybe even employees.”

That made it important for the Mitchells to give it another shot. With a lot of help and direction from Karen Kuhns, the Westmoreland area specialist for USDA, they were able to submit an application for a new project. That new project was for the production of the “moothies,” and it was accepted.

Gayle said the family has many plans and many dreams for the future. “We would love for this business to grow and be able to support our extended family, all three of our children and their families,” she said. “To do that we would need to increase the range of dairy products we can produce. Would we like to make cheese? Yes! Butter and flavored butters? Big yes! Ice cream? Yes, of course we would! But right now, we are doing as much as we can squeeze into each day.”

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