Jim Mitchell, second vice president of the Delaware Farm Bureau, is the seventh generation of his family at Woodside Farm in Hockessin, a few miles from the Pennsylvania state line. The farm was established by Jim’s great, great, great, great grandparents in 1796 and was mainly a dairy operation for its first 165 years. Jim’s parents, Joe and Kathy, gave up milking cows in 1961 and produced various other crops until 1995, including poultry, eggs, sheep, flowers and pumpkins.
In 1996, the Mitchell family celebrated its 200th year of family-owned farming in New Castle County and the farm was recognized by the state of Delaware as one of the few remaining Centennial farms in the first state.
Also that year, the cows returned. Decades earlier, the dairy’s main source of income was butter, made from the cream of their cows’ milk. Jim and his wife, Janet, and his sister, Debbie Mitchell, looked for a new way to add value to the milk. Jim attended an ice cream making short course at Penn State University, then came home to turn a farm building into an ice cream plant. An old wagon shed was converted into a retail stand.
By 1998, Woodside Farm Creamery was producing some of the best ice cream in Delaware from their own Jersey cows. About a third of their milk production goes to a company that makes ice cream mixes for the Mitchells. The rest is sold through a cooperative.
The Mitchells add ingredients to create as many as 35 ice cream flavors which include Bacon, Butter Brickle, Cotton Candy, “Dirt” (for the kids), and “Motor Oil,” a flavor developed for a nearby steam museum. This blend of ice cream, coffee, fudge ripple and caramel ripple dyed green may look strange, but people really like it, Jim says.
Ice cream is sold in cups, cones and sundaes or by the pint or quart, and in milkshakes, banana splits, ice cream cake or pie.
A section of the farm is available for birthday parties under a tent, with cups of ice cream provided, of course. Or, the ice cream makers will “hit the road” to bring a trailer with freezers and staff to your party, reception or barbecue.
Once the farm was a sprawling 1,000 acres. For a time it was reduced to 75 acres, split by two main roads. The cows are rotated daily to pasture in one of 22 paddocks, with hay and silage growing on the other side of the road. Sometimes the cows even graze in the front yard of the Mitchells’ home.
Recently, though, the Mitchells were able to purchase an adjacent farm that was part of the property originally, which brought total acreage to just under 90 acres.
Location is a key factor in the success of Woodside Farms, which is located about 20 minutes from Wilmington and 15 minutes from Newark, in a suburban area that encompasses thousands of people. Unfortunately, most of those people do not know much about farming. While the Mitchells don’t open their farm to the public for general tours or visiting, visitors are welcome on special occasions such as National Ice Cream Day, the third Sunday in July. Visitors can see the production room, double-three milking parlor, and learn about manure composting and soil conservation. For other special dates, the farm maintains a “Cowender of Events” on its website.
The Mitchells have worked to reduce their carbon footprint and their impact on the environment. They installed solar panels in 2009 which now provide about 85 percent of their energy needs. They also use bioplastic containers made of dextrose (corn) that are biodegradable and compostable. Their ice cream is also manufactured directly into biodegradable cardboard boxes instead of plastic tubs.
For their efforts, and their demonstration of adaptability to bring the farm into the 21st century, the Mitchells were presented the 2009 Family Owned Business of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Delaware office.
Woodside is one of only four remaining working dairy farms in New Castle County, and the only one currently with its own creamery onsite. The business is still a family affair. Jim’s father, Joe, milks the cows twice a day and grows 1,500 chrysanthemums to sell each fall. Jim’s wife, Janet, along with managing the ice cream stand, is a small-animal veterinarian. The family sells farm fresh brown eggs and frozen grass-fed beef.
Several dozen sheep and goats also are raised on the farm. Jim’s sister, Debbie has the sheep sheared for their wool which she spins into yarn and puts to various uses including the making of crafts and clothing.
The Mitchells are hoping that someone from the next generation may be interested in continuing Woodside Farm for at least the eighth generation.
Mitchell said, “People really appreciate the fact that we’re still here with the farm. And they appreciate the fact that we have a place they can come and spend some time with their families and friends, sit under the oak tree and relax.”