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Central Area Members of Distinction - Miller Dairy
For Orville and Mary Jane Miller, more than 25 years in the dairy industry has not only given them an opportunity to give back to their community, but also the chance to offer some a second chance at life.
Since 2006, the Millers, owners of Miller Dairy in Hutchinson, Kan., have hired paroled inmates from surrounding prisons to work on their farm. Off the dairy, Orville works as an associate pastor at a local Mennonite church and met some of his current employees through weekly in-prison Bible studies. Others came by recommendation.
After hearing an ex-inmate from Alabama share his story, the Millers took it as a sign from God and opened their farm to paroled offenders right as their youngest son, Brian, was leaving for college. Looking back, the Millers say they wish they would have done it sooner.
Today, their employees are more than just workers, they are family, says Orville. They spend holidays together and Mary Jane has even received Mother’s Day cards.
“We’ve never seen them as a project, but as a partner in business,” Orville says. “They appreciate a job and are committed to what they are doing. It’s been a win-win situation for us and them.”
Mary Jane says she will never forget the first day that Rick McHenry came on board. She knew his back story, but says she didn’t let it bother her.
“When Rick got here, he asked me, ‘Are you scared of me?’ I said, ‘No,’ and I could tell that it was a huge relief for him,” she says. “All he needed was a chance.”
Today, Rick serves as the farm’s lead mechanic, a role he’s held for five years. He also helps Mary Jane with the calves — his first job on the farm.
“I got into some trouble years back, but I’m a changed man now,” McHenry says. “The Millers gave me a second chance. That’s not something everyone gets.”
Orville and Mary Jane understand the importance of second chances. They both grew up on dairy farms less than a mile and half apart. After getting married in 1976, the couple moved into town after Orville took a job working construction building houses in Hutchinson. It didn’t take long, however, before both Orville and Mary Jane came to the realization that they missed the dairying lifestyle.
Their second chance arrived in 1983 after Mary Jane’s father, Fred, asked them join in a partnership with him and return to the farm along with their four children, Brandon, Lisa, Brett and Brian.
“Dairying always came natural for us,” Orville says. “And we both knew that it was what we wanted to do. We were just waiting for an opportunity, and we ended up on her family’s farm. It’s been a good life. We’ve been able to raise our family here and do what we do best.”
When they returned to the farm, Orville and Mary Jane started milking 40 cows. Using the farm’s existing heifers, they grew their closed herd and expanded the dairy’s facilities to accommodate up to 200 cows. They bought the farm in 1988, and today milk 175 Holsteins twice a day in a double-six parlor.
“When we started dairying, we decided that if we are going to be successful, it’s only because God chooses to make us successful,” Orville says. “So we will give Him the credit and the glory for whatever happens.”
Mary Jane has been responsible for the calves since day one and established a written protocol early on to track their growth. She also is the farm’s lead milker. She’s up by 2:30 a.m. every day, prepping the parlor and milking by 3 a.m.
“I enjoy the solitude in the early morning,” Mary Jane says. “It’s just me, the dog, the cows and God.”
Throughout the last 29 years, the Millers have made it a priority to produce milk in a sustainable way.
For years, they have hauled waste to the field and applied it as fertilizer. Now, instead of just sampling soil, they sample the manure and apply it where it is needed most. They’ve also invested money into their facilities to ensure that contaminated water never leaves the farm and that waste is always applied properly to the field at the right time. The same water that cools the milk is the same water the cows drink. And any wastewater from the lagoons is recycled and used to flush the barns.
“We’ve been green before green became popular,” Orville says. “Everything here makes a complete circle a number of times before it gets pumped into the fields.”
In addition, the Millers have paid close attention to cow comfort and cleanliness to improve their production by building new barns with sand-bedded stalls and adding sprinklers and fans. Their investment has paid off with high production and a somatic cell count averaging below 100,000 cells per milliliter last year.
Even through the industry’s ups and downs, the Millers have managed to stay ahead by keeping their costs down and thinking outside the box by using alternative feed methods on the operation. In addition to keeping costs down, the Millers are avid advocates for the industry and enjoy inviting schools to tour their facilities. As producers, Orville and Mary Jane believe it’s their job to show consumers firsthand where milk comes from.
“We tell people they’re welcome to come out any time and we’ll show them around,” Orville says. “It’s our way of building good relations with the community.”
Orville is passionate about promoting agriculture off the farm as well. He enjoys speaking with city groups around Hutchinson and serves on Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.’s Corporate Resolutions Committee. He also serves on the Midwest Dairy Association’s Kansas City Division Board, which is involved in promoting milk.
The Millers’ passion for agriculture was also passed down to their children. With a love for dairying already in their blood, the Millers opted to homeschool their children to teach them the importance of responsibility. In between school work, Brandon, Lisa, Brett and Brian worked beside their parents completing daily chores.
And while Brandon, Lisa and Brett each decided to pursue other interests after graduating college, Brian, and his wife, Amanda, have decided to continue the dairying legacy.
“When Brian told us his future plans, I sat him down and told him that he’ll never make the money his older brother does, but he didn’t care,” Mary Jane says. “He likes this way of life.”
Orville and Mary Jane always hoped one of their children would want to follow in their footsteps, but wanted each one to find their own passion.
“When Brian was growing up, he always wanted a farm set for his birthdays and Christmas presents,” Mary Jane laughs. “I suppose that was our first sign.”
Brian’s decision to return to the farm occurred while attending Rosedale Bible College in Irwin, Ohio. After meeting Amanda at school, he says life’s future plans began to fall into place.
“I came to conclusion that there are other things that I would like to do, but nothing I would like to do for the rest of my life besides dairy,” he says.
Upon taking over, Brian sees himself maintaining the farm’s current herd size, but says economics will likely play a factor as to whether or not an expansion will occur. For the next few years, Brian says he is excited about the opportunity to work beside his father and learn his techniques.
Not only has Orville instilled a strong work ethic in Brian, but a strong commitment to his faith, both of which Brian says he deeply values.
“He’s a great example of a man of faith,” Brian says. “I’ve learned a lot of things from him over the years.”
As for the future of Miller Dairy, father and son are still debating about when the transition will happen. Orville says he would like it sooner, while Brian hopes it’s a bit later. Either way, both expect to meet in the middle.
“Mary Jane and I are pleased to pass the reins to another generation,” Orville says. “We consider that a success.”