Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell, and Michelle Kichline, along with members of the Chester County Agricultural Development Council (Ag Council), presented two annual agriculture awards yesterday at Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs.
Farmers of the Year Award
The 2023 Chester County Farmers of the Year award was presented to the Miller family, Ken and Sue Miller and their sons Randy and Jesse, who own and operate the Chester Springs-based Birchrun Hills Farm, a dairy and cheesemaking business. The Millers were recognized for their dynamic business model, commitment to sustainable farming practices, and local food system advocacy.
First generation dairy farmers Ken and Sue Miller started farming in 1980 when Chester County farmland was plentiful to lease and milk prices were strong. After weathering years of volatile milk prices and rising land costs, they took a chance on cheesemaking in 2006 to secure a more stable future for their farm. Sue, the primary cheesemaker, credits support from Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, cheesemaking mentor Peter Dickson of Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont, and Di Bruno Brothers gourmet shops in Philadelphia for her early successes.
“It wasn’t easy for us to start making cheese,” Sue recalls. “Randy and Jesse were so young back then, and it took many special relationships with fellow farmers and a lot of family cooperation to allow us to explore this new venture.”
Ken Miller, one of the first no-till farmers in the county, oversees the crop growing side of their business using sustainable farming practices to feed their 80-cow herd on owned and leased land. He is forever mindful of the watershed he and his family are stewards of and how the quality of the land and water is reflected in the flavors of the cheese they produce.
Birchrun Hills award-winning cheeses have a strong following with chefs, food critics and specialty retailers across the region. Cheese fans can find them at the Phoenixville, Bryn Mawr, Kennett Square and Headhouse farmers markets, and at their regular cheese and wine on-farm happy hours. They’ve even branched into hosting virtual cheese tasting events.
The Miller family is grateful for the ongoing support from their neighbors, friends, and farmers market customers as they look to eventually transition the farm to their sons Randy and Jesse. The next generation of the Miller family currently oversees Birchrun Hills’ herd management, farmers market operations and assist Ken with the crops. Together the family compliments each other’s skill sets and challenges one another to strive for excellence in all they do.
“We love connecting people with their food and what better way to do that than feeding them really good food on the farm where it’s made,” says Sue Miller. “We encourage people to get to know us and see how we raise the cows, and to truly appreciate the land our food comes from.”
The Duncan Allison Award for Distinguished Service to Agriculture
The Chester County Commissioners and Ag Council presented the Duncan Allison Award for Distinguished Service to Agriculture to Dr. Kevin Hicks of Malvern, for his volunteer work shepherding sustainable forestry practices and invasive species removal at Lundale Farm outside of Pottstown. Lundale Farm is a community of regenerative farmers enhancing the ecology, health, and diversity of the land, and serves as a model for local food production and forest stewardship on over 500 acres of preserved land.
A retired USDA scientist, Hicks has brought his scientific acumen and problem-solving skills to help Lundale plan for and improve its wooded acres through exploring timbering, reforestation, managing invasives, planting riparian areas for agroforestry and the sale of carbon credits. As the board chair of the Sustainable Forestry Committee, Hicks is also tasked with leading groups of volunteers to implement his recommendations.
Hicks contends that the biggest question a landowner faces is what happens if they choose to do nothing to manage their woodlands.
“A hundred or even 50 years ago, nature would have taken its course,” says Hicks. “We didn’t have invasive species like we do today. Now Chester County is at the edge of the storm front, dealing with a huge amount of invasive species coming in on shipping materials from our nearby ports, things like lanternflies, oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, stilt grass, and emerald ash borers.”
Hicks and his wife Pam, also a board member at Lundale, work hand in hand with Lundale’s leadership and tenant farmers to make sure any actions taken are a good fit for the nonprofit’s organic, regenerative focus.
“Dr. Hicks is a wonderful ambassador for sustainable forestry in Chester County,” says Ag Council Interim Director Ann Lane. “He cares deeply for the environment, on both a personal and professional level, and gives so much of his time to show what’s possible for Lundale and other forested lands.”
Learn more about Chester County’s agriculture industry at chescofarming.org.