Though much of the world was forced to pause in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, dairy farmers and other essential workers kept on the job in-person. Cows needed to be milked. Calves needed to be raised. And in the case of Milking R Dairy, ice cream needed to be made.
Sutton Rucks, his wife, Kris, and their two children, Lindsey and Garrett run Milking R. He says they started making ice cream shortly after deciding to open the farm to the community as a way to further their advocacy efforts for dairy. When the farm tours started in late 2019, visitors walked through the dairy and got to see the cows — at the end, they were handed a cup of handmade, fresh-from-the-farm ice cream.
“People were just raving about the ice cream,” Sutton says. “We had a bunch of tours in the early spring of 2020, and it felt like we made more ice cream than we could give away in six months. Then COVID hit.”
The tours stopped. But there was still ice cream, and Lindsey posted online that the farm had it fresh for sale. People could pre-order and pick it up, packaged and ready to go.
24 hours after Milking R’s first posting, the dairy’s ice cream supply was completely sold out. Suddenly, as Americans adjusted to the pandemic in hundreds of millions of individual ways, the whole Rucks family was making ice cream until 2 or 3 a.m., along with running the rest of their 1,500-cow dairy. Through the most intense months of the lockdown, Lindsey devoted all her time to the ice cream business, which developed an exceptionally loyal following.
“Our community would chime in and say that we made things exciting when everyone was home and quarantining, because it would be like a game – who can get online and checked out to score some ice cream from Sutton Milk?” Lindsey says. “I think it kept a lot of people’s spirits lifted. There is a saying that you can’t help but smile whenever you’re eating ice cream and that definitely stands true.”
Now that people can get back on the farm for tours, the family’s ice cream demands are a bit less crazy. But with flavors like the Honolulu (pineapple, coconut and macadamia nuts) and the Cat. Five, an ‘adult flavor’ made with passion fruit and orange juice with white and dark rum that’s named after the most intense level of a hurricane, the ice cream is still a major draw.
The Rucks’ farm sits on the land Sutton’s grandfather purchased in the late 1950’s, in an environmentally sensitive area. Sutton says water quality is huge for the farm’s sustainability strategy.
In 2005, the family converted 100 acres back to a natural wetland marsh to serve as a rainwater filter for what falls on the farm. That water is then used to clean the free-stall barns and irrigate the crops – the only water they pull from the aquifer is drinking water for the cows and the water used to sanitize the milking barn.
The Milking R business model is structured to reduce carbon outputs by keeping its supply chain as local as possible.
“We want to be a private label, but before we changed our plans to do that, we wanted to be the closest fresh milk source to the processing plant in our area,” Sutton says. “You can’t bottle milk, put it on a truck to ship it 1,000 miles, and have less of a carbon footprint than producing, processing and selling it here in Florida.”
In addition to the ice cream business, the farm’s milk is in grocery stores all over the state – but it’s expensive to produce milk in that part of the country, especially while investing in conservation and other carbon-reducing initiatives.
“It takes profitability to have sustainability,” Sutton says.
While the ice cream business was a timely way to stay profitable during the pandemic, Sutton says coming out on top in the dairy industry means prioritizing efficiency.
The Rucks family does all it can to ward off heat stress to maximize their herd’s productivity. They have invested in advanced cow comfort solutions, including a shaded free-stall barn with fans and misters for the Holsteins and occasional Brown Swiss to relieve themselves of the Florida heat.
“I don’t care if we have a calf that’s here for one day or a cow that’s here for 20 years,” Sutton says. “We want to give those animals the best life we can possibly give them.”
Milking R participates in the National Farmer Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program – Sutton is a member of the FARM Farmer Advisory Council and has sat on the Florida Dairy Farmers board of directors since 1995. Lindsey is a former NMPF Young Cooperator. Sutton says the program helps them see their operation through the eyes of the consumer.
People buying dairy are interested in where their food is coming from, and the Rucks have made it clear that forging that connection to the cows and the farmer creates understanding and community.
Also, a cold scoop of homemade ice cream tends to help.