Wild and crazy flavors make Woodside Farm’s product a favorite with area restaurants, while thousands of people flock to the farm stand from March through October
As a seventh-generation farmer, Jim Mitchell knows a lot about tradition.
He can talk about how his great-great-great-great-grandparents, Thomas and Lucy Mitchell, bought the family farm in 1796, when George Washington was president, making it the fourth-oldest farm in New Castle County.
He can talk about what the traffic was like on Little Baltimore Road west of Hockessin in the 1880s, when his great-grandfather moved part of the 1804 farmhouse farther back from the roadway. He can tell you how his grandfather, in the 1920s, drove a horse and wagon every Friday from the farm into Wilmington to deliver milk, sausage, eggs and other products to his regular customers.
But though he knows his history, Jim Mitchell is anything but a hide-bound traditionalist—at least not in the opinion of his friend, Chip Hearn. When Hearn talks about Mitchell, that sense of tradition vanishes. Indeed, Hearn tosses around phrases like “cutting edge,” “never ceases to amaze,” “spectacular” and “wild and crazy.”
Hearn, owner of the Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth, shares with Mitchell a passion for ice cream, especially for flavors never before known to mankind. Hearn’s store boasts some 70 flavors, all made at the Mitchell family’s Woodside Farm Creamery.
“They don’t mess around,” says Hearn of the Woodside operation. “They’ve got their own herd of Jersey cows, and they’re bred to make ice cream. They have special hay. They have special barns. These cows are having a great winter,” he exclaims … on a day when seven inches of snow is falling in frigid northern New Castle County.
Hearn was speaking in early March. By now the snow has melted, and Woodside Farm is open for the season, selling bowls and cones of ice cream by the ounce at the stand on North Star Road, just south of Little Baltimore Road. For those who prefer to take their ice cream home, quarts and pints are available, as well as ice cream cakes, ice cream pies, ice cream cookies and fudge. (The Mitchells keep a flock of hens on the farm, so fresh eggs are also on sale.)
“At any one time, we’ve got 30 to 35 flavors. We don’t have the capacity [at the stand] to carry more than that,” says Janet Mitchell, Jim’s wife, who runs the retail side of the operation while Jim supervises production and the herd of 30-plus dairy cows.
The inventory varies, so customers are in for a surprise at every visit. There are standard flavors, of course, like chocolate and vanilla, and seasonal offerings, like pumpkin in the fall.
“We’ve also got our ‘flip-flop flavors,’” says Janet, explaining that these are old favorites that have returned after being cycled out of the rotation for a year or two. And, she adds, there are the “one and done” specials—quirky flavors made in larger quantities for Hearn’s store, with just a couple of two-and-a-half-gallon boxes held back for sale at the farm stand.
Neither the Mitchells nor Hearn are telling what this year’s special flavors will be, since Hearn will unveil them at a one-day tasteathon in mid-May that attracts about 3,000 visitors.
Like many people, Hearn and Jim Mitchell have a fondness for bacon. That predilection results in special blended flavors like Chocolate-Covered Bacon and “Breakfast in Bed,” whose ingredients include vanilla, pasteurized egg yolks, maple syrup and bacon.
As “Breakfast in Bed” indicates, plenty of word play goes into Woodside Farm’s flavors. Examples: “Motor Oil”—coffee ice cream with a swirl of fudge and green-colored caramel, and “Dirt”—a chewy, kid-friendly concoction filled with Gummi Worms and crushed Oreo cookies. The creations made for Hearn’s store tend to have even wilder names, including “Better Than Sex,” “Lick Me, I’m Delicious” and “Looks Like Viagra.”
And bacon is hardly the most unusual ingredient. Don’t be surprised to find flavors on the menu that include spinach, corn, figs, mango, Red Bull or even pepper sauces.
“I give them ideas, and out comes spectacular ice cream,” Hearn says.
While The Ice Cream Store is among the largest of the 40 restaurants and ice cream stores that carry Woodside Farm products, all the ideas don’t come from Hearn, according to Janet Mitchell.
“When you get ideas, it’s a group effort,” she says, noting that their team—three year-round employees and 30 to 35 seasonal workers, mostly high school and college students, regularly brainstorm ideas.
While Jim’s favorite flavor is chocolate, he and his wife are hard-pressed to say what’s number one with customers. Perhaps because many flavors are rotated regularly, “people always seem to want what we don’t have,” he says.
For customers who can’t find their favorite, and those who just can’t make up their minds, Woodside offers an easy solution, Jim says. Just give the “Wheel of Indecision”—located behind the counter—a good turn and buy a scoop of the flavor indicated when the wheel stops spinning.
To make great ice cream, the Mitchells say, you must start with the cows.
Woodside had long been a dairy farm, but in 1961 Jim’s father and grandfather chose to sell off their herd of cows rather than make expensive upgrades to their equipment.
But Jim missed the cows, so when he took over operations of the farm from his father, he and Janet decided to bring back the dairy herd in the mid-1990s. The ice cream stand opened in 1998. (Jim’s dad, Joe Mitchell, now 85, still milks the cows twice a day.)
This year there are 32 cows, and each produces five to six gallons of milk a day, Janet says.
About 30 percent of the milk is hauled to a dairy in Pennsylvania, which adds extra cream, sugar and other ingredients to create an ice cream mix, which then comes back to the farm in sealed five-gallon plastic bags. The remainder of the milk is sold to the Land o’ Lakes cooperative. “Nothing goes to waste,” she says.
With the added ingredients, the 170 gallons of milk typically hauled to the dairy results in about 400 gallons of ice cream mix, which, with the air and flavorings introduced in production, results in about 600 gallons of ice cream.
The production process is easy to explain. Woodside has three batch freezers, two capable of making five gallons at a time, and one 10-gallon freezer. The ice cream mix is poured into the top of the freezer and the flavorings go into a chute on the side. (Some bulkier ingredients, like cake dough used for some flavors, are poured in after the ice cream is processed because its thickness could gum up the inside of the machines.) Everything is blended for eight to 10 minutes, then a nozzle on the front of the machine is opened and the ice cream dispenses into a carton. Most of the ice cream goes into two-and-a-half-gallon boxes. Some popular flavors are packed into quart and pint containers for retail sale. The containers are frozen overnight at 15 degrees below zero before they’re ready to be sold.
Last year Woodside Farm made 45,000 gallons of ice cream. About 25 to 30 percent is sold wholesale to dozens of restaurants and ice cream shops in Delaware and nearby Pennsylvania and Maryland. The rest is sold at the farm’s ice cream stand. The stand, open from March 21 until late October (it’s closed on Easter Sunday), serves 130,000 to 140,000 people a year, Janet says.
“I’m not too concerned about counting customers,” Jim says, “only that they keep coming back.”
Exact numbers are hard to come by because transactions are counted by sales check, with families and groups typically ordering on a single check, she says. On weekdays, the stand processes more than 300 checks; on weekends, the daily tally is between 400 and 500.
Last year, the stand used 110 cases of spoons, with 1,000 spoons per case, which translates into 110,000 cups of ice cream.
Woodside sells bowls and cones by weight, not by the scoop. That method, says Janet, “is fair to us; it’s fair to everybody. A family with a 2-year-old might want just a little dollop for him, and then we’ve got one kid who comes in and always wants five scoops of chocolate.”
A typical single purchase goes for $3.25 to $3.50. At 55 cents per ounce, that’s about a six-ounce serving.
In addition to the stand and selling to restaurants and ice cream shops, Woodside Farm has expanded into catering, serving multiple flavors from a trailer at corporate events, picnics, barbecues, graduation parties and weddings.
By carefully managing their herd of 1,200-pound Jerseys, the Mitchells can keep their wholesale operation going year-round. As demand at the stand tapers off in the fall, ice cream mix made from milk produced in October through December is frozen for use in January and February, when the cows are artificially inseminated, giving birth to calves in February and March.
Cows give birth to their first calf when they are 2 years old. To keep producing milk, they must calve every year. Jersey cows usually are productive for three years. After that, they are literally put out to pasture, grazing leisurely on the 80 acres that remain from the 1,000-acre farm of more than two centuries ago.
“The Mitchells treat their cows well,” Hearn says.
As a rule, Jim Mitchell says, Jersey cows are great milk producers for their size, and they’re relatively easy to manage. If any health problems develop, the Mitchells call on the large-animal specialists at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.
But they don’t have to do that often, because Janet Mitchell is the farm’s first line of defense. Besides running the retail operation, she also happens to be a veterinarian.