Cream of the CropsJun 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Paula Piatt
As he sits on his tractor overlooking the farm, Parker Bradley has a good feeling. It’s not just the fresh air or the contented cows munching in the fields in front of him. It’s knowing that the farm is going to be around for a while, that he’s got many years ahead of him on the tractor and with those cows.
That’s a great feeling for an eleven-year-old.
“They love this farm, and we had to do something if we were going to have a future,” says his dad, Mark, who, along with his wife, Nichole, are celebrating their first year at Bradley’s Country Creamery. “The kids were a huge motivator. If there was any long-term future to this farm, we had to take a different route [than selling only to the co-op].”
Parker and his eight-year-old sister Lexi can almost always be found on the family’s farm at 3954 Sportsmans Road, Athens—ringing the register in the store, tooling around the barn on their scooters, or helping Dad clean up after a bottling run. On opening day in 2022, both kids turned the “Open” sign.
“Whatever path they choose is fine, but they truly have an interest. They like being here; they want to be a part of it,” says Nichole. “It’s pretty cool to go somewhere and see a bottle of our milk. The kids just turn and point—‘that came from our farm.’”
Mark farms the 250 acres in a twenty-year partnership with his dad, Mike, tending about fifty cows, a mix of Holsteins and Jerseys who are the key to Bradley’s Creamline milk that has quickly become a regional staple. Three years ago, all that milk was going to the co-op under a quota system. Already dealing with a surplus of milk, covid shut down commercial bottlers, leaving dairy co-ops with even fewer markets. The low milk prices weren’t sustainable for many farmers. A spark lit years ago began to burn a bit brighter.
“We felt very vulnerable at that point and we decided to pull the trigger on this,” Mark says of the store and attached bottling operation. At a time when most were reeling from an unprecedented pandemic, the Bradleys were taking on the future. It was, admits Nichole, way out of their comfort zone. Farming is a solitary life—you, the cows, the occasional inspector, the milk truck driver.
“That was a huge adjustment for us when we opened, to have people coming here all the time. Now all of a sudden we have strange people coming...well, they’re not strange anymore because we know them,” Mark laughs. He marvels at the support of the community.
“The community is phenomenal. Prior to this I never realized how amazing our community is,” he says. “It’s not just any small town USA.” And he’s now in the thick of the local small business community. For sale at the farm store (open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) is not only the milk he bottles himself, but locally made ice cream, honey, maple syrup, pizza, baked goods, meats, and cheeses. Bradley’s milk can be found in more than half a dozen outlets “down in town.” Regardless of where they put it, it’s flying off the shelves.
“Mark told me it would be a dream if we could sell 100 gallons of milk a week,” says Nichole. The first two weeks they were selling 500 gallons a week and now, having settled into a routine, bottle between 300 and 400 gallons weekly. A vending machine run by the Athens School District’s Future Farmers of America club empties in days. “A couple of months in, we had to buy another cooler because we couldn’t keep up with the demand. With the flavors, we were doing forty gallons in the beginning, and now we’re up to seventy-five to eighty.”
Ah, yes. The flavors.
The whole milk—minimally processed with no homogenization and around 4.2 percent butterfat (as opposed to commercially-processed milk at 3.25 percent)—is a flavor unto itself. You know immediately that something is different, including the need to shake the bottle to mix in the cream.
The other flavors are chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cookies and cream, coffee, chocolate peanut butter, and maple. Everyone has their favorite. The early frontrunner—chocolate peanut butter—was an instant hit, until milk drinkers tried the coffee. Then out came the eggnog for the holidays. The flavors rotate through the cooler, based on ingredient availability. Maple, for example, will be seasonal during sugaring season. And there’s a delicious surprise on the horizon for late summer.
“There are some wild flavors out there. I start looking at the list and I’ll say, no, that’s too risky,” says Mark, who’s already left his flavor comfort zone. “At first it was, well, if it doesn’t sell then we have to eat it, so it’s got to be something we like.”
But a year in, he and Nichole have a pretty good handle on their customers. And things have settled into a routine, albeit a hectic one. While Nichole’s teaching job at a local school district gives her summers to help, there are still only so many hours in a day.
“Right now, it’s a full-time job,” says Mark of the store. “There’s a minimum of eight hours a day of chores in the barn, so to take this on—it’s been a struggle. In order to grow, I’ve got to let go of some of the control and have somebody else in here processing and have somebody delivering.” He’s not sure he’s ready for that, but, all-in-all, some good problems to have. Especially when he looks to the future.
“At the end of the first day, we counted the money,” Mark remembers. “Parker was standing there and he gave me the biggest hug and he said ‘our farm is going to make it.’”
That’s a great feeling for an eleven-year-old, too.
Find Bradley’s Country Creamery at https://www.loc8nearme.com/pennsylvania/athens/bradleys-country-creamery/7446684/, Facebook, or call (570) 651-0200.