Cliff Miller is the third of four J. Clifford Millers in his family. He’s the sixth of seven generations of a family that has owned and, at times, lived on an 845-acre property since 1827.
He knows what it means to have “a long-term association with the land.”
And he knows what it takes to — at an age when most are looking to retire — completely rethink his relationship to that land and how it’s managed.
“It was in our heritage and we wanted to continue to own it,” Miller, now 72, said during a drive through his property in October. “To do that, we needed to make some changes.”
Those changes began when a friend suggested the land, which Miller’s family had hired farm managers to run, raising dairy cows, orchards and crops for the last 170 years, was more of a “grass farm” than anything else.
Indeed, grassy hills and woodlands constitute the vast majority of the property, which stretches out along both sides of Lee Highway near Sperryville, VA, where fall-tinged Blue Ridge Mountains stand as sentries to the urban development not far away.
The Thornton River runs through the Millers’ property on its way to the Rappahannock River and bears witness to the changes this farm has made in the last 15 years — changes for the better.
Miller had spent his career off the farm, selling computers for IBM in Richmond and otherwise biding his time vocationally until the farm would be his to run or, rather, to hire farm managers to run, as his family had done for decades.
When his father passed away in 1998, “it was my turn,” Miller said.
Around that time, Miller met two people who — along with his conservation-minded wife, Lucille — would slowly change the way he perceived his land: a trendsetting Virginia farmer named Joel Salatin and Joe Thompson, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
The former would provide the first real example of what a grass-based farm looks like; the latter would help build the fences, dig the wells and plant the trees that would allow him to make the change.
“I’d like to say that I had a strong and increasing interest in protecting the waterways and protecting the Bay; doing my part anyway,” Miller said. “But if the CREP program hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. No farmer could.”
Thompson was working for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Virginia at the time and was the first to suggest the CREP program to Miller.
“It took him a while to get on board with the idea of fencing out his streams,” Thompson said, recalling a water quality measure he suggested to Miller. “But once he did, then that’s what he’s done since.”
A dozen years later, Miller’s property is a picture of what such programs — when used to their fullest extent and at the right time — can accomplish on a property with an open-minded owner.
Miller admitted that he started the process trying to get the most out of a federal program that offered to pay for 50 percent of his fencing and tree plantings and other efforts that were linked to water quality improvements on the farm. At the time, a state program paid another 25 percent and grants from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited funded the rest.
But once Miller started to make improvements, his outlook changed. He recognized he could directly impact the health of the Thornton River — a river that was so polluted by human and animal waste in the 1960s that the farm’s dairy cows began aborting calves, Miller believes, from drinking its water.
He began to catch a vision for a farm that not only doesn’t pollute, but also improves the health of the water running through it.
He decided that “anything that came into the river when it was on our place was going to be clean. I embraced the whole thing, and I was able to because I had only a small herd” at the time.
Working with Thompson to take advantage of state and federal programs, Miller started taking out more than five miles of fencing that had allowed his cows to drink directly from the river. With the help of the CREP and other cost-sharing programs, he replaced those with 10 miles of fencing that would keep animals out of the water and installed wells to provide drinking water elsewhere in the pastures.
In the process, Miller looked at how the funding boost from these programs could help him transition to an entirely different way of farming, one that would benefit the soil instead of stripping it of nutrients.
He opted for fencing that could foster a multi-species rotational grazing system that he calls “mob grazing.”
As he had learned from Salatin and others, raising livestock this way would improve the quality of his soil over time and his ability to grow the grass that would feed those animals. (Although it’s worth mentioning that Salatin, a libertarian, is not a fan of government programs and thought Miller was “crazy” for participating.)
Miller also has placed conservation easements on 600 of the property’s more than 800 acres, permanently limiting the use of those lands to protect their conservation value.
Today, woods and grassy buffers grow along both sides of the river and in areas where streams flow intermittently, most of them planted through the CREP program. The buffers filter water and remove pollutants so they do not reach the river.
On the acres of buffers, Miller entered into 15-year contracts through the longer-running Conservation Reserve Program, which pays rent on the acreage that’s been taken out of farm production for conservation measures.
‘Damn good field’
Jumping into his hunter-green Subaru “work car,” filled with the farm dog’s hair and stink bugs to prove it, Miller drives to a 30-acre field that “was all bare” before.
“This is where I said, ‘This is a damn good field,’” Miller said, recalling an early conservation quarrel with Thompson and his wife, Lucille, that he eventually lost.
Miller considered the field to be one of his best for growing corn and fall grains. The land was one of three wetland areas his family had drained around the mid-1800s to tap into what was considered some of the most fertile soil for farmland. They had long made use of chemical fertilizers and grown crops right up to the edge of the water.
Per the conservation program’s recommendations, Miller initially was willing to give up a couple dozen feet to buffers around the field to filter water runoff. But, he said, the others “kept working on me” to do more.
Eventually, his wife asked how much money he was making on the crops grown in this particular field — and they both realized he’d make more in rent from the government program if he’d put the whole of it in conservation. So he did.
Field by field, acre by acre, Miller began to rethink the way his family had run this farm for generations.
Over a three-year period, he began restoring the farm’s natural wetlands, riparian buffers and trees, allotting about 250 acres to the effort through programs like CREP.
Forests account for about 300 acres of the land and the rest, except for some farm buildings and homes, is now in pasture and wild grasses.
An aerial photograph of the farm taken in the 1980s shows the stark contrast to what it was before. A few trees dot what is an otherwise clean-shaven landscape. Large silos stand tall next to the barn, ready to receive row crops that were grown on the property.
In its agricultural heyday, the farm was home to a midsize dairy and the sprawling apple orchards for which Rappahannock County was known at the beginning the 19th century. Miller’s grandfather built the expansive and sturdy barn that still stands on the property — and is now rented out for weddings — to house a Grade-A diary in 1917.
Miller earned his master’s in business from the University of Virginia with a thesis on the two dairy farms his family was running at the end of the 1960s. His paper recommended that the farm implement the latest technology to increase production, including adding cows, fertilizers and chemicals to the operation.
“Luckily, we didn’t do what I had recommended,” Miller said, though he got an A on the paper. “When I read it now, I am very glad that we didn’t do that.”
Almost all of the property has now been gifted to the Miller family’s seventh generation, which includes Miller’s son, daughter and three nephews. But, with none of the family owners interested in full-time farming, a key component of managing the land has been finding the right people to farm it.
Growing young farmers
The healthy vegetation that’s the fruit of Miller’s efforts not only improves the soil and water quality, it also provides forage aplenty for pigs, sheep and the 100-percent grass-fed cattle for which the farm is now known.
A young couple recently took over the cattle operation, renaming it Heritage Hollow Farms. Mike and Molly Peterson graze about 120 cows on more than 260 acres leased from Miller, rotating the animals onto fresh pasture every day and letting each plot recover for up to 90 days before it sees hooves again.
Another young couple grows organic vegetables on a 30-acre portion of the property called Waterpenny Farm. After several years of leasing the land to them, Miller entered into a 40-year lease with the farming couple, Eric Plaksin and Rachel Bynum, when they were in their mid-20s. They’ve since married, built a house and are raising a family on the land.
“They’re a real good example of what being willing to rent part of your farm to young people can do,” Miller said. “My history of short-term leases with good farmers indicated that that doesn’t work for me.”
Thompson said Miller’s growing passion for providing young farmers a field for their work — and affordable, long-term leases — is another great outcome of his participation in conservation programs. And the young farmers agree.
“I think it’s a great model,” said Molly Peterson, whose husband, Mike, was a chef at the nearby Inn at Little Washington before interning with Cliff’s cattle. “I wish more farmers that want to retire or landowners with land just sitting there…would give young farmers the opportunity.”
“If we could have more Cliffs who are willing to do that, that would be great.”