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Family Tradition Continues At Tester’s Dairy Farm — Watauga County’s Only Grade-A Dairy Farm

By Sherrie Norris

Tester Dairy Farm in Zionville has been around for several generations and today is the only Grade A Dairy Farm in the area, sending out a tanker full of milk every other day.

Current owners of the business, Jessica Lawrence Miller and her husband Daniel Miller, are carrying on a long-held family tradition in Jessica’s family with renewed interest, youthful energy — and a lot of hard work.

The young couple, individually and as a hardworking duo, has long been known for their work ethics and love for the land and its animals. Some may even say they are both “old souls” with traits rarely seen in young folks these days.

Jessica on the “mule” transporting calf Callie to a new pasture.

Both Jessica and Daniel are multi-talented and skilled individuals who worked on the farm for Jessica’s grandparents for several years while still holding down full-time jobs. Just last year, however, they both decided to quit their public jobs and go into the farm business full time. With “great support” from their families, Jessica and Daniel, along with her grandfather, Tom Tester, do the majority of the work on the farm, even though they admit that most of their family members have been “roped into helping at some point or another.” They also have several neighbors and friends they know they can call on, if needed.

Jessica’s Grandpa,Tom Tester, then a young man in the 1960s, enjoys life on the farm, pictured here with one of his cows and her calf.

“My grandpa, Tom Tester, helps me with every milking and helps out any way he can,” Jessica said. “My normal work load includes milking, herd health, raising calves and heifers, accounting, ordering parts and running errands. Daniel is responsible for repairs and maintenance, feeding, fieldwork, and anything involving a tractor or a piece of equipment. Many times, our work overlaps, as certain jobs require more than one person. And, we also have a firewood business together.”

Jessica and Daniel agree that for a married couple working together every day, they do pretty well as a team. “Our interests are completely different, so what one of us doesn’t really care to do, the other one really enjoys,” Jessica said.

“Red” gets a little extra attention from Daniel at feeding time in the field.

A Time-Honored Privilege

It’s an honor and a privilege for them to be able to keep the tradition alive, they admit.

Jessica’s great-grandparents came to work on the farm in the 1940s.

“At that time, it belonged to Odes and Nora Wilson and had formerly been in Nora’s family, who were Masts,” she explained. “In 1960, the farm was auctioned into various parcels, and my grandpa’s brother purchased what is our farm today.”

Jessica’s grandmother, Margaret Tester, and Jessica’s older sister with “Pepper” the dog around 1991, pictured in front of the same hay roller they still use, 31 years later.

In 1968, Jessica’s maternal grandparents, Tom and Margaret Tester, bought the farm from Tom’s brother and operated it as a dairy until January 2021, when they turned the farm over to Jessica and Daniel.

Tom Tester and his brother Clint standing in tobacco crop, late 1940’s.

So, as fourth generation dairy farmers, the young couple is maintaining a long-time family interest as owners of the farm business, while renting the land they farm.

And, yes, the Millers takes great pride in operating the county’s only current licensed dairy.

“For years, Watauga County had several dairy farms,” Jessica explained.  “Over time, the number dwindled, due mainly to low milk prices, increasing prices of equipment and land, as well as older generations aging out without younger generations wanting to continue.”

Dairy farming is a hard way to make a living, the Millers agree, “And it doesn’t include a lot of very attractive benefits. Most people aren’t looking for jobs with no vacation or sick days, with great responsibilities, sometimes high stress, hard work, and depending on the price of milk, maybe no profit.”

Jessica, pictured right, hooking a cow up to the modern-day milker. Her grandpa Tom,  at left,  washes a cow’s feet prepping her to be milked. 

The Tester Dairy Farm is part of the  dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America. “This provides us with a secure market for our milk, as the DFA agrees to market all of our milk,” Jessica explained. But, she adds, it is not without challenges — balancing supply with demand in a highly perishable product that is continually harvested, and due to seasonality, sometimes inconsistent in quantity.”

Daisy the cow waits to be milked.

And, because they sell to DFA, they know the milk will be picked up every other day.

Having paved the way, Tom Tester was always a part of a cooperative, Jessica said. “Over the years, cooperatives changed, some merged with others. He was a part of Dairy Farmers of America, so we just transferred that membership.”

Jessica is shown wiping down a cow after soaking in a peroxide solution to kill any bacteria before milking. Her grandpa is washing a cow’s feet.

The milk is sold by weight, she explained. “I am often asked how many gallons of milk we sell a day, which catches me off-guard because I don’t keep up with gallons, but rather pounds of milk. Our cows average 50 pounds of milk a day: translated, if all of the cows were milking, that would be about 220 gallons of milk a day. Our milk is picked up every other day and goes to Ashe County Cheese or Dairy Fresh in Winston Salem.”

As a Grade A dairy, it is safe to say that the farm must follow strict state and federal health department requirements and is inspected four times a year.

This truck comes every other day to pick up the farm’s supply of milk.

“Every time the milk is picked up, the driver also checks the temperature and pulls samples of the milk,” Jessica said. “These samples check for antibiotics, bacteria, somatic cell count (an important indicator of milk quality, which impacts shelf life and flavor), butterfat, protein, the freeze point (to make sure water hasn’t been added), alfatoxins, and coliforms, to name a few.”

 When a milk truck gets to the milk plant, she continued, a sample is pulled. “If that sample tests positive for antibiotics, then the whole load is dumped. They then check each farm’s samples to find where the antibiotics came from, and that farm is responsible for paying for the whole load.”

At the same time, the samples taken at each pick-up, allows the Millers to gain price incentives offered by the cooperative for milk quality.

The milk cooler with the transfer hose hooked to it as milk is picked up.

When asked if the process requires specialized feeding/precautions, Jessica responded: “There are many different ways to operate and manage a dairy farm — and how you feed the cows is no different. I enjoy the fact that during the grass-growing season our cows go to and from pasture every day. We supplement their grazing with a 20-percent dairy concentrate while the cows are milking, and also corn silage and hay. During the winter months, grazing is taken out of the equation and other feed quantities are adjusted.”

The Tester Farm  currently has 38 cows, which consists of 25 Holsteins, and 13 Holstein-jersey crossed cows.

Some of the farm’s heifers on pasture, with Beech and Sugar mountains in the distance.

“Holsteins are the most well-known dairy breed,” Jessica described. “They are large-framed, black and white, and produce more milk than other dairy breeds. I often tell people they are Chick-fil-A cows. Jerseys are small framed, typically light brown, have a black nose, and big black eyes. Jersey milk is rich in butterfat. The Holstein-jersey crosses we have are small to medium framed and mostly black. We refer to them as our goats because they will climb on a hill and graze while the Holsteins are laying in the shade.

The farm usually has approximately 25-30 calves and heifers at any given time. During the grazing months, most of the calves and heifers are moved to rented pastures.”

The two questions Jessica said she is asked most often are, can she tell them apart and do they have names? The answer is yes to both.

Calf Jolene enjoys a sunny fall day.

“I can tell you who a cow is from 300 yards away and her whole life history. Some of our cows include Daisy, Rosebud, Junior, Polkadot, Mouse, Elsie and Socks.”

Running a dairy farm is not the easiest job in the world, the couple agreed, but “modern” implements surely help.

A view from inside the milk cooler as the milk is transferred into the truck.

“We have a double four-swing herringbone milking parlor that was installed in 1972. What that basically means is that we stand in a pit and the cows are elevated at about waist height. There are four cows on each side of the pit and there are four milking units. This allows four cows to be milked at once and the ability to prepare another four cows for milking at the same time.

The milk is never touched by their hands, Jessica said, but rather,  it goes directly from the cow into a stainless steel pipeline system, and then into a stainless steel milk cooler, where it is cooled to 36 degrees within 30 minutes.

From the back of the milk truck, you can see the transfer hose and pump, as well as the cooler in which milk samples from each farm are stored.

“The bare minimum amount of time involved in the work that has to be done — 365 days a year including all holidays, sick days, family deaths etc. — is about five hours a day,” Jessica shared. “This includes milking, cleaning before and after milking, feeding calves and heifers, feeding and moving the milk cows to and from pasture.”

A well-known company that has a lot of confidence in the milk supplied by this local dairy.

They try to do “the bare minimum” on Sundays, they said, but on the other six days of the week, it’s not uncommon to put in 12 hours or more each day.

What else do they do on the farm?

“Besides milking and tending to the cattle, we grow 15 acres of corn for silage and put up at least 25 acres of hay. We repair all of our equipment and occasionally work on equipment for others. We also sell firewood.”

Before Full-time Farming

One of Jessica’s first memories of farm work was following a tobacco setter on foot, watching for any plants that might have been missed. “My older sister got to ride on the setter and I was jealous,” she said. “Our favorite thing to do as kids on the farm was ride the four-wheeler to get the cows up every night.”

Chopping corn for silage on the farm to feed the cows.
Jessica gives “Red” a neck rub.

 The daughters of James and Jackie Lawrence, Jessica and her two sisters showed little to no interest in farming as children.  

“Even though I am the middle child, I was always bigger and more athletic, which often led to me doing the heavy lifting and farm work,” she recalled. “I always enjoyed being physically active, whether it be through running, clogging or basketball.”

The dedication required to play basketball at the high school level, she added, prepared her for dairy farming by teaching her perseverance, endurance and discipline.

Jessica was a member of the Future Farmers of America club during her junior and senior years of high school.

“My junior year, we had an amazing teacher that I consider one of my most influential role models,” she described. “I was a part of the livestock judging, forestry and parliamentary procedure teams. Each FFA member has a supervised agriculture experience, which gives students real life experiences working in agriculture. For my SAE, I started raising bottle calves from my grandparents’ dairy.”

Jessica with her dad James Lawrence standing in front of corn crop in 1998.

We asked her if she ever really considered farming becoming her livelihood — and when did she know for sure that it’s what she wanted to do?

“I started becoming interested in agriculture around age 12. I was voted most likely to become a farmer in eighth grade, but I really didn’t put a lot of thought into it until I was 16.”

 She made up her mind, she said, when she was a high school senior that she was going to be a dairy farmer — “And I became passionate about the dairy industry.”

She started following her grandpa around everywhere, and learning everything she could.

Jessica Miller and her grandpa Tom Tester taking a break from “packing” corn silage.

“I bought my first cows in 2010 and became involved in the daily operations of the farm.”

In the meantime, however, Jessica worked at New River Building Supply while in high school, at Modern Toyota as a service writer for a couple years and most recently, at Mast Store as a sales associate for 11 years.

Daniel was raised with his brother, A.J., by their “Paw,” Arlie Watson, on the other end of the county.

Arlie ran a country store and service station at the forks of Castle Ford, Ridge, and Tom Jackson roads.  At a very young age, Daniel and A.J. were both following in their “Paw’s” footsteps by not only learning to run the store, but also learning to repair and maintain equipment and vehicles. Arlie put up several acres of hay as the boys were growing up and had them operating tractors;  by the time Daniel was 8 years old, he was driving trucks in the field, even before he could reach the pedals.

After high school, Daniel earned a degree in automotive technology from Central Piedmont Community College and worked as a technician at Modern Toyota for a couple years. He then worked at Tweetsie Railroad in the train shop for eight years — doing machine work, train and ride maintenance and operating the locomotives. And then, he became a full time farmer.

Jessica and Daniel met on their first day of high school. “We had auto tech together and sat down beside each other that very first day of class. We both were in Skills USA.”

Working well together even then, the duo placed third at the National Automotive Technology Competition in New York City in 2009, their senior year.

They  dated for 8½ years and have now been married 8½ years.

Sacrifices, Challenges and Influences — Worth It All

When asked about the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get to where they are now, there was no hesitation in response.

“The most obvious sacrifices would be things such as trips, vacations — and sleep. Sacrifice also comes when it’s your birthday, but then it’s time to chop corn for silage. When you’ve been planning to go out to eat for a week, but a cow is in labor, you don’t go out to eat. Or when you have a migraine — the cows still have to be milked. Sacrifice is something farmers know all too well.”

A couple of cows at the milk barn with Tater Hill froze in the distance on a cold winter day, probably early 1990s.

On the flip side, we asked about the greatest joys and satisfactions that they experience as farmers?

“We really enjoy working outside and admiring God’s creation. We enjoy everything about the cows, from their personalities, to the trust they bestow in us, to simply watching them eat. We find joy in working with  family.”

Lately, Jessica said, it has become very special to involve her nieces in the farm and spend time with them.

Daniel Miller with the couple’s niece Gracie shown in the tractor with silage chopper.

What are some of the greatest challenges  they face as dairy farmers, or farmers, in general?

“The greatest challenge for us as dairy farmers is being a small operation in our location. Larger farms are able to make more milk for less money. For instance, it is easier for our cooperative  to pick up a tanker load of milk at one farm versus driving around to 12 different farms on winding mountain roads to get the same amount of milk. Being in the mountains not only makes it hard to find farmland to grow crops, but also makes it hard to access feed and materials from other sources.”

What effect has the current economy had on their business?

“Almost all of our ‘inputs’ have increased, some significantly. Fortunately, milk prices have increased to help compensate.”

When asked about greatest inspirations and influences in life and farming, Jessica responded “It is hard to say who has been my greatest inspirations, as I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful influential people in my life. I was born with all four grandparents, four great-grandparents, and  a great-great-grandpa. I also had a bonus set of grandparents growing up, and both of their mothers were still living. Then, after Daniel and I got together, both of his grandfathers.”

Tom Tester and his dependable Ford tractor getting the job done in the early 1990s.

 Being surrounded by adults that all took a part in agriculture at some point or another definitely had a profound impact on Jessica’s life, she added. “One of these people was Stella Lawrence, she was my bonus great-grandmother. She was a single mother who worked hard to provide for and raise her son. She worked on a local dairy and had a jersey milk cow of her own that she sold milk from. She loved her milk cow and talked about her often. I can still remember her weed-eating until I was 6-8 years old, that would’ve made her 84-86.. Her work ethic, resilience, and common interests definitely had an impact on my career choice.”

 The greatest influence would have to be her grandpa, Tom. “For the last 12 years, we have spent several hours almost every day together. I couldn’t measure the things I learned from him, the ‘given things,’ such as how to do something, to the ‘more important things’ like always putting the cows first — and dedication.”

Jessica’s Grandpa Tom finishing up milking a cow as great-granddaughter, Ariana, watches.

Daniel says his greatest influence in life was his Paw Arlie. “He taught me how to repair things, use tractors and equipment, and how to trade. He taught me about an older way of life and culture most kids don’t get to learn.”

 He also says his uncle, Dale Watson, was another very influential person in his life. “Dale was a logger and I worked for him several years logging, and in his firewood business.”

 Daniel  had  other  uncles  and  aunts,  grandparents, too, and regulars at the store that were a big influence on his upbringing, as well.

(Sadly, Arlie, Dale and the boy’s mother, Anita, all passed away within a short time of each other last year.)

Do they have other interests and hobbies off the farm?

The couple attends Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Zionville.

Jessica loves geography, and especially anything with a local connection. “I could spend hours looking at maps and enjoy discovering new places. In my free time, I can always be found listening to older country and bluegrass music.”

In Daniel’s “free time,” he enjoys repairing, maintaining, and trading on Ford tractors from the mid 1970s-late 1990s, logging, sawmilling and metal working.

And rarely are they without “something” to do down on Tester’s Farm, where life is good for this fourth generation.

Jessica with a group of heifers and a glass of milk, honoring World Milk Day.