Fourth generation farm shifts business model

by Sally Colby

A farm in Platteville, CO, is home to several generations of the Miller family, and many are involved in the farm operation today.

Michelle Miller, one of Joe and Chris Miller’s seven children who currently operate the farm, said, “Between vegetables, field corn and hay, we have about 1,000 acres in production. I’m third generation and my kids are the fourth generation.”

The selection and quantities of vegetables grown on the farm is impressive, including 100 acres of potatoes, 100 acres of sweet corn and about 20 acres of assorted vegetables. “We grow Viking Red and Yukon Gold potatoes, and sometimes some russets,” said Michelle. “Yukon Gold is our best seller because they have the best flavor and keep well.”

Tomatoes are started in two ways: stagger-planted on plastic and in the field. “We start them from seed inside,” said Michelle. “After about eight to 10 weeks, we plant them in the field. We always try to get them in by the middle to end of May, but the last couple of years we’ve had snow, so this year we waited longer.” Tomato varieties include Early Girl, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak, and Romas because many customers like to can. Michelle said most people don’t care about the size of the tomatoes – they just want them to taste good.

For an early jump on the season, the Millers rely on a high tunnel. Michelle said watermelon and cantaloupe seem to do much better if they’re started inside then transplanted outside. Tender vegetables, including all peppers and tomatoes, eggplant and most of the broccoli, kale, kohlrabi and beets, are also started inside.

“We plant beets in 200-count trays in the greenhouse,” said Michelle. “Then we plant them in the field. We also plant beets directly in the field. The beets we start in the greenhouse might be ready about two weeks earlier. We also grow golden beets. If anyone at the farmers market says they don’t like beets, I push them toward the golden beets. They have all the nutrients but taste more like a carrot.”

Each year, the Millers grow about 250 acres of pumpkins. Quite a few are sold at the fall festival on the farm, and since there are no pumpkin growers in the state, many pumpkins are sold wholesale. Michelle said a routine crop rotation is potatoes and sweet corn or field corn. Pumpkins are rotated with alfalfa hay. The most common rotation is hay for about three years, followed by disking the ground, then planting pumpkins and potatoes.

Prior to this year, Miller Farms sold produce at 40 farmers markets each week. “We used to do 10 or 15 on Saturday and 10 or 15 on Sunday,” said Michelle. “The rest were during the week, all at different locations.” They staff markets with family or long-time friends, and by mid-summer, it takes about 35 people to man the markets. “The personal touch at farmers markets is important,” she said. “People love to know their farmer. We all split up and go to different markets – our customers all know us.”

While Miller Farms has always been a strong presence at farmers markets, this year they’re doing just 15. “We changed everything about farmers markets,” said Michelle. “We changed how we get produce to the people. At most of the farmers markets we have to wear masks and produce has to be pre-bagged. One person handles the produce and another takes money.”

The biggest change came when Miller Farms could no longer offer their popular “fill your bag for $10” deal because customers can’t handle and select their own produce. Produce is bagged prior to arriving at the market, but Michelle said customers have been supportive, and can come to the stand, pick out produce and fill a bag for $10. But there’s another new twist, one suggested by Michelle’s nine-year-old son Drew.

“We weren’t going to school or anywhere else,” Michelle explained. “Drew said ‘We can’t go to farmers markets, so why don’t we deliver it to people?’ We put a live video on our Facebook page, and within four hours, we had over 1,000 orders. Now we deliver pre-bagged produce to customers’ doorsteps. It’s been the most successful thing we’ve done since we changed over to the $10 bag sale.”

They now deliver between 1,000 and 1,200 farm-to-doorstep orders every week. Customers can order online, then pay through Square or use EBT, SNAP or WIC. Michelle said the best seller is the mixed veggie bag, which she said is a surprise every week because crops change quickly.

Another popular marketing concept is Miller Farms’ fall festival. “My dad Joe started it,” said Michelle. “He was at a farmers market and a little girl asked why the vegetables were dirty. He asked her where her food came from, and she said they pick it up at the grocery store every week. He realized many people had no idea where food came from, what it looks like when it’s growing. He started the fall festival to help teach people that food it isn’t all the same size and doesn’t always look pretty, but it’s going to be fresh and taste good.”

The first fall festival hosted about 20 families; five years later, the farm hosts 10,000 people each weekend in September and October. Fifteen tractors with wagons take people to the fields to harvest their own vegetables, and on most days, all wagons are in service. “They pick beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, pumpkins, kale, kohlrabi, Indian corn, tomatoes and peppers,” said Michelle, adding that guests pay $22 each for five bags of produce. “People are amazed to see what some of the vegetables look like in the field.”

The fall festival opens on Labor Day and runs daily until mid-November. The festival also features a small corn maze, but it isn’t what they promote. “Everybody loves a corn maze in fall,” said Michelle, “but we want people to have an agricultural experience. It’s about 10 acres, and fun for kids of all ages without getting lost.”

Prior to the fall festival gaining traction, the Millers handed out flyers announcing the event at farmers markets, but Michelle said Facebook marketing has proven to be a better means of announcing the event. “People come out and tell everyone they know, and it’s been the same with farmers markets and farm-to-doorstep delivery,” said Michelle. “Word of mouth is our best form of advertising.”

Visit Miller Farms at millerfarms.net.

2020-06-30T15:35:12-05:00June 30, 2020|Grower West|0 Comments

Leave A Comment