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A farm for a family

Ted and Melissa Miller of Ickesburg, Pennsylvania, are a rarity in farming. They started on their own. With a $10,000 down payment, they bought their 112-acre farm in 2000. They remodeled two buildings to finish hogs on contract. In early 2003, they started milking cows in their brand new New Zealand swing-style milking parlor. They built it with help from Melissa's father, who is a building contractor.

Those bootstrap farms have always been high-risk ventures. But the Millers had some advantages. Ted was no greenhorn. Growing up in a neighboring county, he had 4-H pigs and worked summers on dairy farms and broiler houses. As a young man, he ran a 2,400-sow farrowing unit. He was service manager for contract growers working with Pleasant Valley Foods when he started farming.

Melissa, whose great uncles were dairy farmers, was a little apprehensive, but their first year in dairying was "going better than I anticipated," she said at the time.

Nearly five years later, their family has grown. They're milking more cows. And they've added a full-time employee to the operation.

Ted says he's still glad that he and Melissa are farming.

"We think it's an excellent environment to have a family in," he says. "My goal would be for my children to grow up in an operating farm environment and have a positive experience with that."

The business side of their life seems to be on track as well.

"Our equity position has improved pretty much every year," he says. Part of that is land appreciation.

Their grass-based dairy herd has grown from about 60 to 100 cows, thanks in part to a long-term verbal lease of 100 acres of hay ground from a retired farmer Ted has known for years.

"That land was a key part of us being able to expand," Ted says. "It takes a good bit of pressure off the grass. We didn't want to be in a position of buying forage and being at the mercy of the market on availability and quality."

The Millers have hired a full-time employee, Steve Kiner, a positive change for the farm. "My goal is to pretty much train him in all aspects of the operation," Ted says. Without Kiner's help, especially in timely cutting of hay, "there's definitely some dollars that would have flown out the door."

Melissa remains key to the business. "We're pretty much 50-50," Ted says. She does the farm's bookkeeping as well as the budgeting and cash flow projections. Ted and Melissa are up every morning to share the milking chores. Kiner and part-time high schoolers handle the afternoon milking.

Ted and Melissa Miller of Ickesburg, Pennsylvania, are a rarity in farming. They started on their own. With a $10,000 down payment, they bought their 112-acre farm in 2000. They remodeled two buildings to finish hogs on contract. In early 2003, they started milking cows in their brand new New Zealand swing-style milking parlor. They built it with help from Melissa's father, who is a building contractor.

The farm's other main enterprise, its 3,600-head-capacity hog finishing business, has changed little. Pleasant Valley Foods, which owns the hogs, has restructured into Country View Family Farms. The base contract has not changed, running at $29 per pig space per year, paid monthly.

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