Moye Family Pivots to Preserve Farming Heritage

Start with little, work hard, be smart, and attain success. Though the features are distinctive, the concept of the American Dream is universal.

Simply Natural Creamery, owned by brothers Neil and David Moye and their families, epitomizes this ethos. The creamery processes every drop of milk produced by its herd of 200 Registered Jersey cows and has a ready market for every gallon of milk bottled and every scoop of ice cream churned. Simply Natural Creamery hosts more than 200,000 visitors every year through tours, parties, family outings and other events and has earned a perfect five-star review on Trip Advisor.

The picturesque parlor and creamery and pristine, state-of-the-art milking facilities of today are a far cry from the dairy of two decades ago—two Jersey 4-H cows milked with buckets in a stanchion barn behind the house. But with vision, purpose, a plan, and perseverance, the family birthed an American Dream that preserves their farming heritage while also providing a livelihood for future generations.

A Heritage of Farming in North Carolina

Though they were not raised on a farm, Neil and David learned their love of the land growing up in a rural community. They now farm 3,000 acres in Ayden on the fertile Inner Coaster Plains of North Carolina. When they began their careers in the 1990s, tobacco was king. Though the state still leads the nation in tobacco production, social pressures prompt farmers to raise fewer acres every year. Over the past two decades, production has declined 35% and just 1,300 of the 12,500 farms that raised the crop in 1997 do so today.

The writing has been on the wall for years, summed Neil. “I knew we needed to make changes if we were to continue farming. Tobacco might be a viable option for our generation, but not for our children and their children. We need something that is sustainable long term.”

Surprisingly, it was the demise of another agricultural commodity in the Southeast—milk—that provided opportunity to pivot. While dairying has grown in other parts of the country, it has steadily declined in North Carolina since cow numbers peaked in 1945. Today, the state’s 233 dairy farms produce just 15% of the raw milk needed to meet demand for fluid milk and other dairy products. And most of those farms are in the central part of the state.

“When we considered our options, we discovered there were no dairy farms east of Raleigh-Durham bottling their own milk and selling it to consumers,” Neil remarked. As well, the farm is ideally situated to market to consumers, a 15-minute drive from the urban centers of Greenville, Kinston and Goldsboro and 90 minutes from the coast.

And, unlike tobacco, dairy products are generally regarded as healthy and nutritious, and consumers love cows.

The Moyes family owns and operates Simply Natural Creamery in eastern North Carolina. Pictured are David and Jackie Moye, right, and their children, David, Landon and Ashlyn, and Neil and Jackie Moye and their children, Brantley, Daniel and Holly.

Dairy was also attractive to the family because Neil and his wife, Jackie, and their children had gotten their feet wet raising cattle as 4-H projects. Their first cows, Daisy and Carrie, were milked with a bucket in a barn behind the house and milk was used for baking and meals.

Armed with opportunity, basic cattle knowledge, a strong work ethic, and belief, the family made the decision to expand the 4-H venture and build Simply Natural Creamery. Their initial five-year plan aimed to be bottling milk large scale by 2015 and distributing to customers within a 50-mile radius of the farm.

Growing the Herd

Because a creamery cannot operate without milk, the first line of business was to grow the herd.

The breed of choice was easy, noted Neil. “The Jersey cow fits our vision because she is smaller and easier to handle, better adapts to heat and humidity, has higher conception rates, and produces milk with more butterfat, perfect for making ice cream and other dairy products.”

The family grew the herd from the ground up, literally. In October 2009, they began purchasing all heifer calves born to the Jersey herd owned by Gary Nance of Asheboro. For about six months, they made weekly excursions to the farm and brought back all the babies born the previous week. They bottle fed them, raised them in hutches, and enrolled them in the Genetic Recovery program offered by the American Jersey Cattle Association. They signed up for the organization’s flagship performance program, REAP, and began using other tools to manage the herd.

While this method allowed them to grow their skills along with the herd, it created a challenge teaching the first group of first-calf heifers “how” to be milked. Herd animals, cows learn behavior from each other, and there were no old-timers to teach them the ropes.

“The first month was rough, but it became easier to manage when we had a few veterans to lead the way, remarked Neil. “As well, we have been blessed with a Jersey community that has been quick to lend a hand and help us become better dairy farmers.”

In particular, the Moye family has developed a symbiotic relationship with North Carolinian Corey Lutz and his family, who have operated Piedmont Jerseys in Lincolnton for many years and launched River Bend Creamery in August 2021. Learning from each other, the Moye family purchased Piedmont genetics and became better cow managers. The Lutzes became better creamery owners.

Other sizable foundation purchases were made at the Lenny Hoffner Dispersal in Mooresville, N.C., in 2009 and from Senn-Sational Jerseys of Newberry, S.C. Cattle also came from Rowzee Jersey Farm, Newton, Miss., Waverly Farms, Clear Brook Va., and fellow North Carolina breeders, Biltmore Farms of Fletcher and Elmore Jerseys of Statesville.

The epitome of cow comfort, the 200 members of the milking string at Simply Natural Creamery are housed in a sand-bedded pack barn and milked in a double-eight parallel parlor.

By October 2011, the milking string had grown to 75 cows. A double-eight parallel parlor was built along with a sand-bedded pack barn with a drive through center alley. Cows are milked three times a day and let out on pasture and dry lots during the day. Daily milk production hovers around 62-63 lbs., with a butterfat test of 4.8-4.9% and somatic cell count of 100-150,000. Cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) in the pack barn. The TMR stabilizes component tests, yield and flavor, key for consistent production in the creamery. All feed— corn, hominy and soybean meal—is grown on the farm.

Calves are raised in hutches with an overhang structure that provides shade and then grouped by age in pasture pens with pole barns or shade structures.

Cattle are permanently identified with JerseyTags. The herd includes five Excellent and 94 Very Good cows and has an appraisal average of 79.7%. Today nearly all calves born on the farm have Herd Register (HR) or Generation Count (GC) 5 or 6 status. Higher genetic calves in the heifer pens are largely sired by Ahlem Whistler-ET, Bar MB Craze Castro, Primus Craze Starlord-ET, JX Ahlem Frisco Pine {6}-ET, JX Ahlem Craze Proteus {6}-ET, and River Valley Cece Chrome-ET.

Building the Creamery

To learn about processing, Neil and Jackie visited several small dairies processing milk from their own cows, many in Pennsylvania. By talking to others, they got a better feel for what might and might not work for Simply Natural Creamery. They settled on bottling milk and churning super premium ice cream (16% butterfat) as this allowed them to best use the extra fat content of Jersey milk.

The structure for the creamery itself was completed in under a week. Amish built, the crew showed up on Monday and had the building fully enclosed and ready for interior work by Friday.
With time savings like this, an entire year of the planned five-year-to-launch was knocked off. The family began processing milk in October 2014 and sold their first bottles of milk to a few local grocery stores.

 

Today, the creamery processes 10,000 gallons of raw milk each week into fluid milk products, butter, and ice cream. Raw milk is initially stored in a pair of 2,000-gallon bulk tanks. It is then separated into skim and cream and held in three other storage tanks. Cream is added back to skim in varying amounts depending on fat content of the final product. Milk is high-temperature low-time pasteurized (170-172º F for 15 seconds), then quickly cooled to 35 º F and run through the homogenizer. Milk is either bottled or churned. Containers are stamped with freshness dates, rinsed with water, and hauled to walk-in coolers or freezers.

“While we initially expected the creamery to sell primarily bottled milk and some ice cream, that market has played out differently,” explained Neil. “We now generate nearly equal revenues from milk and ice cream. While our milk can be found in many places, many know Simply Natural Creamery as ‘that ice cream place.’”

The wholesale lineup includes whole milk, low fat milk, skim, chocolate milk, buttermilk, heavy cream, half and half, and eggnog in season in volumes ranging from five gallons to pints. Simply Natural Creamery also processes butter and creates 43 flavors of super premium ice cream, which is sold wholesale in half gallons and pints. The creamery markets to 275 retailers. Larger customers include the chains Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion, Harris Teeter and Publix.

Milk, butter, and ice cream are sold direct to consumers at the parlor and creamery in Ayden and new Simply Natural Creamery shops in Greenville and Morehead City. Milk is marketed as “The Cadillac of Milk,” with emphasis on nutrition, digestibility, and prevalence of A2-beta casein.

Connecting with Consumers

Much of the success of Simply Natural Creamery hinges on a thriving agritourism business that earns revenue from both tour fees and product sales. The consumer experience is thorough and well-planned, mindful of the fact that first impressions go a long way in creating lifelong customers.

It all starts with the tour guide. “Educating our tour guides is paramount,” Neil remarked. “They are the front line with consumers, and we expect them to be ready for questions of any kind. When they come through our training program, they know everything about the farm, creamery, and cows, and what happens every day.”

Simply Natural Creamery runs 90-minute tours of the farm Monday through Friday three times daily from March through November. On the weekends, 30-minute wagon rides around the farm are held every half hour on the hour. Tours are conducted by request from December through March. The creamery also offers a birthday party package, a party room for special occasions, and a food truck for catered events.

Agri-tourism is a key component of the business plan at Simply Natural Creamery. Visitors tour the farm in a covered wagon and learn about cows, farming and dairy products from well-versed guides who can answer any question about what happens on the dairy any given day.

Reflecting on the business, Neil noted, “Sometimes when I walk the pastures, I remember how amazing these creatures really are. These 200 Jersey cows provide a livelihood for 50-plus families, not just ours, but those of our employees and everyone who helps our product reach the consumer.”

“I tell them, ‘You know you’ve got a lot riding on y’all.’” In typical cow fashion, they pay no mind. They continue grazing, swishing their tails, chewing their cud, making grass into milk and living their own Bovine American Dream, perhaps.

For the Moye family, Simply Natural Creamery may just be the current version of the American Dream. Julian Castro, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Urban Housing and Development, has another perspective on the ideals. “In the end, the American Dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.”

Perhaps the next generation, or even the next, will redefine the creamery or retire it altogether to grow sweet potatoes, pumpkins, or pansies. But for now, Simply Natural Creamery is opportunity for the Moye family to continue a farming heritage.