February 08, 2012 - In 1933 Clark Miller had a choice.
Front row, from left: Quinton, Alexandra, Lori, and Clark. In back is Nathan. The Cook family at their farm. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
Stay in Clarkston and work for his father, Ben Miller, at a Ford dealership he owned located on Main Street in the downtown area, or move north to a farm in Brandon Township.
"Ben did not think there was any money to be made in the car business," said Clark Cook, grandson of Clark Miller. "He could have been a car dealer, but selling corn for $2.35 per bushel— that's the reason he came up north to Brandon Township from Clarkston."
Over the years Miller added on to the 100-acre farm located at 2950 Seymour Lake Road, which included milk cows. He purchased his first tractor in 1941.
"They had been working the farm with horses until then. It took two-and-a-half years to save up enough money to buy that tractor," said Clark.
In 1958 the original barn on the Miller Farm burned to the ground. A neighbor farmer, John Cook, was hired to help rebuild the Miller's barn. While working on the construction project at the farm John met Sally, one of the two daughters of Clark Miller living on the farm.
John and Sally married in 1958 and continued to work on the farm, ultimately purchasing the business from Miller in 1976. The couple had two sons, John-Mark and Clark.
Clark and his father John continued to operate and maintain the farm and a herd of more than 50 head of milking cows. John-Mark pursued a career in dairy farming supplies sales, while Clark made some changes to the family farm.
As an agricultural student at Michigan State University during the fall of 1979, Clark was given a class assignment to write a comprehensive business plan using the family farm that would, in theory, increase profits. At that time Cook's Farm was selling their milk to the Michigan Milk Producers Association, a cooperative owned and controlled by dairy farmers throughout the state.
Clark's plan was to halt selling the milk to the MMPA and construct a processing plant for the 300 gallons of milk they produced each day at the farm. The plan also incorporated the idea of putting milk into plastic bags, popular in Canada at the time and creating a drive-up window for local customers to purchase the farm fresh milk.
"I received a 92 percent grade on the project—second highest grade in the class," recalls Clark. "Then I came home and built the plant—breaking ground in 1981," he said. "In February 1982 we sold our first gallon of milk to area resident George Miller. The idea was to have farm fresh milk with a drive-up window—about 70 percent of our business picked it up that way."
"About a year later milk sales were down—the plastic bags were hard to promote," added Clark. "So in 1983 we started making ice cream with the extra milk—producing about 135 gallons per hour in plastic tubs."
In 1994, Clark discontinued the bags of milk and replaced them with plastic jugs. The plastic bag machine was sold to a producer in South America, added Clark.
Today, Cook's Farm Dairy employs about 35 workers in the summer and 17 during the winter months. The milking cows are hormone-free, providing the local area dairy products and hamburger.
"Before McDonald's, we were the largest employer in the township," he said. "The workers bale hay, dip ice cream and help with the cows until they go back to school in September."
This month, Cook's Farm Dairy will celebrate 30 years with a new ice cream container.
"The ice cream will stay the same—the recipe is a family secret—but due to plastic costs the tubs will be replaced with a new multi-color paper container to mark the 30 year anniversary. We have 20 flavors of ice cream that we churn at a slower rate and with double the ingredients for flavor—we're not cutting back on quality."