Clifford Miller was known for his energy, thirst for knowledge and determination to do his best, no matter the subject matter. So, when he got introduced to the idea of managed-intensive grazing, there was no stopping him.
"He basically didn't do anything halfway,” says one of his daughters, Laura Frase. “He would dig post holes for fun. So, as teenagers, my sister Jennifer and I would have a lot of fun digging post holes and maintaining fencing.”
When Cliff retired in 2001 from a long career with Republic Steel, his mind needed something new to focus on, something new to learn. The goal, his widowed wife Jeannine recounts, was to farm with as little equipment as possible. “He said the cost of the equipment and to keep it running was breaking the small farmer,” she says.
He set his sights on the ultimate goal of grazing 365 days a year with no supplemental hay. He got pretty close — only six weeks of hay — before he lost his life to mesothelioma in March, just a few months after his diagnosis.
In addition to being named a 2021 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award winner, “The Carroll Soil and Water Conservation District is honoring Cliff’s memory with the Cooperator of the Year Award for 2021, the first year he was eligible,” explains Amanda Tubaugh, district administrator at the Carroll County SWCD. “Even though he’s not here to take care of the farm any longer, longtime friends of Cliff and Jean’s are continuing his passion for managed-intensive grazing.”
Year-round grazing is a lofty target, but one the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council — an organization Cliff helped found —is still focused on. “That’s tough because it's very, very weather dependent,” Laura says.
But this council, which encompasses members from several counties, is learning together from successes and failures being shared through conversations, meetings, a newsletter and pasture walks. “Dad was quick to share what worked, but equally open about telling producers what not to do when something didn’t work out favorably,” Laura adds.
The Millers have hosted tours of their farm, which was originally 121 acres, but has expanded through the years to now include 167 acres and 32 paddocks enclosed with a combination of high-tensile, barbed wire and electric fencing.
Participants are most interested in the piping system that feeds 13 hydrants from the house well. Through USDA programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, Cliff obtained cost-share funding for many of the conservation practices he implemented. “And he immersed himself in reading everything he could and kept meticulous records. His mind worked like a spreadsheet,” Laura says.
Cliff was quick to volunteer and be involved when he saw a need. He wanted to help advance the Carroll SWCD, so he became a board supervisor in 2009 and served as chairman of the board for four years.
In addition to being a huge advocate for managed-intensive grazing, Cliff was very active in other conservation-related activities, including soil testing, reseeding of pastures, livestock exclusion fencing, pond management and more, Tubaugh says.
The Millers have 18 cows and calves, eight heifers and a bull on the farm, which has been leased to family friends, who are mindful of the conservation practices that were near and dear to Cliff.
Love of farming
Cliff grew up on a cash crop farm with a few dairy cows. “He loved being on the farm, but didn’t like that all the ground his parents were farming was rented,” Jeannine says. “He wanted to own land and enjoy nature. He was also an avid hunter.”
They bought the original farm in 1976 and built a home five years later.
“Everything he did on the farm was to make it a better place,” Jennifer says. “Compared to when I lived here in high school, there are now so many more butterflies, fireflies and birds.”
The farm includes three ponds, and to improve water quality, one of the first things Cliff did was fence them off. He also installed a cement water trough and the hydrants, which required a special pad around them to keep from turning into a mudhole, Jeannine explains.
He also added a winter-water trough, where a ball seals up the area and an air pocket keeps it from freezing. “The cows push the ball down,” Jeannine says. “It moves to the side to allow a drink and then pops back up when they are done.”
One of the ponds at the bottom of a hill had gotten overgrown with algae and duckweed. “We first tried a type of carp, but that wasn’t cleaning it up, so my husband and I spent a better a part of a weekend helping them install a 14-foot windmill and aeration system,” Laura recounts.
“Dad liked solving problems,” Jennifer adds.
In the year before his death, Cliff had installed a third row of solar panels on the barn and put in an electric vehicle charging station in the garage.
“We don’t have an electric car, but he was looking ahead and wanting to be carbon neutral,” Laura says. “As he learned more about conservation practices and became even more environmentally conscious, his political views changed. Most people start out liberal and become more conservative. He started out conservative and became more liberal.
“The more he learned about conservation practices and the environment, the more concerned he grew about climate change and what we are leaving our children and grandchildren.”
Cliff loved tracking data, Jennifer adds, and knowing how much electricity was generated that day. “Last month's electric bill was $11,” Jeannine chimes in.
Symptoms of his disease were starting to surface as his energy levels declined. “And he coughed a lot,” Jeannine says. He was a strong, nimble man that used the outdoors and yoga to stay fit. “It took a long time to talk him into going to the doctor,” she says. “Then it took a couple months for all the tests. Eventually it got to the point where he couldn't walk.”
“In one way it was fast, and another way it was in slow motion,” Laura says. “I have a Dec. 10 photo of him walking with the cows. He died on March 5. There were so many teeny, tiny little things he knew that we’re scrambling to figure out in the last year because he was perfectly healthy until he wasn't.”
The family is proud of Cliff’s accomplishments, but say he would be humbled by the award and be looking for the next opportunity to leave the world in a better place.
“What struck me the most since he passed is how one person's energy changes a place — when I look out in the fields, they look different because he's not there,” says Laura, noting he would top off the weeds the cows didn’t eat after moving them to another paddock. “And so, the idea of one person not making a difference is so untrue — conservation happens on an individual level, and it works when everybody does their part.”
The Miller family
Family: Cliff and Jean Miller worked as a team in marriage for 57 years and in farming for 40 years. They have two daughters, Jennifer Hartz and Laura Frase. Jennifer lives in Gainesville, Fla., with her husband, Barry, and daughter, Zoe. Jennifer works at the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in educational programming. Laura lives in Madison, Ohio, with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Leah. Laura is a high school science teacher at Mentor High School. Before Cliff's passing, the farm and cattle were leased to lifelong friends of the Miller family so that the conservation practices could continue.
Farm: Miller Ridge Farm is composed of 167 acres. Cliff and Jean managed a herd that averaged 20 brood cows, 20 calves and one bull. They utilized managed-intensive grazing by dividing their pasture into 32 paddocks. They utilized EQIP and CSP grants to improve water quality, preserve top soil and manage the woodland areas of the farm.
Nominated by: Amanda Tubaugh, district administrator at the Carroll County SWCD.
Outreach and education: Cliff served as a member of the Carroll County Soil and Water Conservation board for 12 years, and he served as chairman of the board for four years. He was one of the founding members of The Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, which was formed to improve and advance conservation practices. Miller Ridge Farm also hosted pasture walks and a program for woodland management for the Carroll County Soil and Water Conservation District.