Family Banks Dairy Future on Ice Cream

6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

HOCKESSIN, Del. — Woodside Farm Creamery has been in the Mitchell family since George Washington was president.

Seven generations of the Mitchell family have farmed the fertile land near Hockessin since 1796. But the 1,000-acre farm eventually shrunk to only 75 acres, divided into three parcels by an intersection.

It was still a working farm, but it was growing increasingly difficult for Jim and Janet Mitchell to make a living from the land. Jim Mitchell mowed lawns while Janet Mitchell worked as a veterinarian to supplement their farm income.

In earlier days, the farm produced butter with a horse-powered butter churn from rich dairy milk. It also produced sausage, eggs and scrapple.

In 1961, Jim Mitchell’s father and grandfather sold the dairy herd and the family tried raising turkeys, pumpkins and a little bit of everything to help make ends meet.

Then, Jim Mitchell decided to try the dairy business once more. Family cousins had run an ice cream making business in the Wilmington, Del., area. A PBS special on making ice cream and a short ice cream making course at Penn State University were enough to inspire him.

“I got a hankering and I have a very understanding wife,” Jim Mitchell said. “I thought it would be neat to do something retail. I always wanted to farm in some respect.”

So, he asked his wife to come out to the barn to look at a sheep. When she got there, she found a Jersey dairy calf wrapped in a red bow as her present.

“I guess we’re going into the dairy business,” Janet Mitchell said. “When he asked me about selling ice cream, I said that’s my favorite food.”’

They started small and now have a herd of about 35 Jersey dairy cows, known for the richness of their milk. The milk that doesn’t make it into ice cream is sold to Land O’Lakes.

“We kind of eased our way into this,” Jim Mitchell said.

He likes to joke that you can put a silver dollar in the bottom of a milking pail and still see the dollar when you’re done milking. If you are milking Holsteins, he jokes that the milk is so thin that you can see the dollar. If you’re milking Jerseys, there isn’t enough milk to cover up the dollar, he laughs.

The farm has always had Jersey cows, although customers are occasionally confused when seeing dairy cows that aren’t black and white. “We’ve been asked why we have deer in our pasture,” Jim Mitchell said at a recent farm forum.

Woodside Farm Creamery is a family operation. The Mitchell’s 20-year-old niece, Rebecca, dips ice cream and the couple hope she will become the eighth generation of the family to stay home on the farm.

Jim Mitchell’s sister, Debbie, raises sheep, works as the resident artist and helps with the milking. His father, Joe, 83, still milks every day and raises chrysanthemums.

Jim and Janet Mitchell don’t have any children of their own, but some 35 people work at the creamery, most of them young people working part-time surrounded by sweet temptations. “We don’t own any. We just lease them for the summer,” Janet Mitchell joked.

It’s not easy for a small farm to stay profitable, but the creamery has found a popular niche with local residents. The family stresses service and quality, using only fresh ingredients. “The bottom line is doing a good job. Paying attention to detail and quality ingredients,” Jim Mitchell said.

Because the farm is a bit out of the way, the Mitchells say they like to make sure the trip is worthwhile. A large yard adjacent to the creamery is lined with picnic tables and families enjoy their ice cream while taking shelter in the shade.

“We’ve become a destination,” Janet Mitchell said.

“People have to go out of their way to come to us, so we try to make it worthwhile,” Jim Mitchell said.

Some 43,000 gallons of ice cream were made at the creamery last year and Jim Mitchell has been able to give up the lawn mowing business. His wife still works part time as a veterinarian.

Vanilla remains the most popular flavor at the creamery, which opened for business in 1998.

Bring your own banana on opening day and you can get a half-priced banana split. On National Ice Cream Day, the family opens the farm up to the public for tours.

That’s a part of the farm philosophy of trying to be community oriented and neighbor-friendly. They host the local fire department, hold fundraisers for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and support the local food bank.

The farm has installed solar panels that provide some 80 percent of the dairy’s electric needs. Most of the ice cream dishes and containers are also now biodegradable.

The family is aware that they are surrounded by subdivisions and know that farming and development cross paths. So they try extra hard to be good neighbors. “We feel like we are in a fishbowl,” Jim Mitchell said recently.

That means trying to educate the public and also trying to be considerate of times when they spread manure or go out on the busy roads. It’s an approach that has paid dividends in good feelings on all sides.

“They would rather see pastures and cows than more houses,” said Jim Mitchell.

You can find Woodside Farm Creamery at a number of local events, like the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival (they make a mushroom ice cream), the Middletown Peach Festival and Hagley Museum events. They also do corporate catering and the occasional wedding.

Their ice cream is available at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia. Some of the more unusual homemade flavors like bacon and ghost pepper, made from an amazingly hot pepper and which are featured at the Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth Beach, are made at Woodside.

Vanilla may be the most popular, but the signature flavor is motor oil. It’s coffee ice cream with caramel and fudge ripple and just a hint of green coloring.

The request for the flavor came from a local steam museum, which asked for a steam-oil flavor. The problem, Jim Mitchell said, is that nobody else knew what steam oil was.

Other popular flavors cookie dough, pink peppermint and chocolate. There are also seasonal flavors like pumpkin and peach as well as lemon and lemon coconut.

There’s even a “wheel of indecision” for those who can’t make up their minds. Give the wheel a spin and you take the flavor the arrow lands on.

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