Without electricity, a car, or a cell phone, Amos Miller turned his dad's Pennsylvania farm into a $1.8 million national food retailer
Imagine trying to build a national food retailing business based on mail order, far-flung distributors, and trade shows—without using the Internet. No e-mail newsletters or Web site for taking orders and handling complaints, no Facebook fans, or Google ads, or Twitter following.
That's not all. Imagine doing it without using cell phones or computers. No BlackBerry for expediting orders. No CRM software for segmenting customer lists. Absolutely no texting.
Let your imagination go a little further and picture doing it without driving a car or without using electricity. No quick trips to the post office to ship orders, and no fax machine, scanner, or copier.
This is the world of Miller Farm, a Pennsylvania food producer that has grown to $1.8 million in annual sales from less than half that four years ago. The farm is so busy it's turning away orders from food cooperatives around the country.
But data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest what an anomaly Miller Farm is.
While farming is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with more than 300,000 new farms started from 2002 to 2007, accounting for nearly 2 million small farms, making a good living is becoming tougher. The USDA in its 2007 census said the number of small farms with $100,000 to $250,000 annual sales (its highest revenue range for small farms) declined 7%.
The driving force behind this anomaly is 32-year-old Amos Miller. He's not growing his business bereft of so many modern conveniences out of some sense of purity or to prove a point, but rather because he is Amish. As part of their religious beliefs, the Amish turn their backs on modern-day conveniences and are highly visible in the areas of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where most live, notable for their dark clothing and their horses and buggies, which compete with cars and trucks on local roads. They avoid even having their photos taken, which is why we can't include a photo of Miller and his family.
Located in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., Miller Farm was started by Amos' father, Jacob. Amos says he and his dad concluded in 2000, based on conversations they had with customers and representatives of organizations that promote nutrient-dense foods, that interest was about to grow significantly. The two of them focused on expanding the farm's product line, so they now offer 31 products, from grassfed beef (including not only various steak cuts, but marrow bones, ox tail, and tallow) to milk-fed pork, pastured chicken (including chickens not fed any soy), and 16 varieties of cultured veggies (including fermented ketchup, cabbage juice, and tomato salsa).
The interest in such foods has helped drive the rapid growth of farmer's markets, private buyers clubs, cooperatives, and community supported agriculture (known as CSAs, whereby consumers commit to buying a particular producer's foods for a season or ongoing). Once popular mainly for vegetables, CSAs now exist for meat and even for fish.
"It used to be that organic was all the rage," says Dan Kittredge, executive director of the Real Food Campaign, which is part of advocacy group Re-Mineralize the Earth. "Now everyone has organic." Nutrient-dense food is the new rage and gives "the advantage back" to small farmers who leverage the notion that certain foods, such as fermented vegetables, grass-fed beef, and pastured chickens, are more nutritious than conventionally produced products and may help consumers strengthen their immune systems. "There is money to be made here," he says.
And making money is what Miller Farm is doing. "I can't meet all the demand," says Amos Miller. He relies on additional supplies of product from his brother, John, who "grows the produce that we ferment and process here," and from three other neighboring Amish and Mennonite farmers.
What distinguishes Miller Farm from others, such as celebrity farmer Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia, which has helped popularize nutrient-dense foods, is that Miller has gone national—and done it without modern conveniences. His main concessions to modern life are a generator for refrigeration to cool certain foods and a landline telephone (717-556-0672) to take orders from distributors and mail-order customers. He also relies on FedEx for shipping orders to customers.
Courting the Foodies
To market his wares and network, Miller regularly attends events popular with foodie types. At the annual conference of the Weston A.Price Foundation, held in November at a hotel outside Chicago, he and several other Amish manned a large table in the exhibitor area, selling large jars of fermented veggies, maple syrup, and homemade spelt noodles.In December, at a conference in St.Paul, Minn., of sustainable farmers and their customers put on by Acres USA, Miller's offerings were a little different: at breakfast time, slices of dense grain bread slathered in butter and honey; and at lunch, plates of bread with homemade liverwurst and salami.
How did he get all that food to the conferences if he doesn't drive? He rented a refrigerated truck and hired a non-Amish neighbor to drive it. He stored the food in dozens of coolers with refrigerant chemical blocks.
"He's a hustler," says Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, who mans a booth near Miller's at the Weston A. Price Foundation conference.
The Blessings of Dirt
The conferences bring in not only direct revenues but also customers from around the country. For instance, many of the attendees at the Weston A. Price Foundation conference are involved with food cooperatives back home that are seeking the kinds of foods Miller's farm produces. The orders pour in from individual consumers the old-fashioned way—via snail mail, as well as via the farm's conventional telephone line. The farm receives regular orders from food cooperatives as far away as Florida and California.
While he says he's proud of the fact that "we're making a lot of money," Miller notes that elders in his church worry about the growth. "They discourage us getting too big," he notes, in part because they don't want Amish farmers to be tempted by the marvels of modern technology. "As long as we don't rely on computers and electronics, they're okay."
Miller says he doesn't get frustrated by not having modern conveniences. In fact, when he's at trade shows, he usually can't wait to get back home. "The city is a pretty sterile environment," he says. "But if I did it once a month, I'd get lost, I'd forget what it's like to get dirty."
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