This Tar Heel of the Week story about Bob Nutter was published Jan. 6, 2008, with the headline “Pioneer dairyman is good neighbor, too.”
The magazine on Bob Nutter’s coffee table is revealing: “Progressive Dairyman.”
The Christmas tree in his tidy white farmhouse northwest of Chapel Hill is decorated with Holstein ornaments. Small plastic squares hang there as well — the ear tags from his wife’s favorite cows.
Nutter is co-owner of Maple View Farms, his family’s sprawling dairy operation in Orange County’s rolling hills.
He seems hardened to the cold of a walk-in refrigerator where he gestures at neatly stacked glass jugs of milk. Selling it locally has kept him in farming, he says.
Nutter recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Orange-Durham Cattlemen’s Association, in part for innovative marketing. It was a huge surprise, he says.
He’s modest that way.
He’ll turn 80 this year and has lived in North Carolina since moving the family and farm from Maine in 1963. He’s become a bit more Southern, friends and family members say, though he retains a faint Yankee accent.
“You can tell pretty quickly that he’s not from around here,” said David Lewis, a neighbor and fellow farmer who spoke at Nutter’s award ceremony. “The first time I met him, I just went up there to pick up some bricks, and he was curt and abrupt and very businesslike. And I was young and impressionable and didn’t know any better.”
Thirty or so years later, Lewis says, Nutter has mellowed.
And he’s generous. You can often see his tractors and employees plowing or mowing for neighbors, Lewis adds. “If you’re choosing neighbors, he’s the one you want to have,” he said.
Nutter, a fifth-generation farmer, has worked on a farm all his life. At 79, he’s only semi-retired.
Why is he still working?
“I don’t know anything else,” he says.
Muffin Brosig struggles to explain her father’s drive.
“You don’t farm unless you love it,” she said. “You don’t work that hard for the money that you get from farming. You have to love the farm. And he does. He loves the land; he loves the animals.”
Brosig, who runs the milk company office, grew up working side by side with her father. Her brother Roger Nutter runs the milking plant. She talks about riding on tractors alongside her father as they worked. “He was able to teach us a lot about life,” she says.
Brosig is proud of her father’s willingness to make big changes late in life, especially the move to bottling milk under the farm’s own label.
Nutter says he and his family realized in the mid-1990s that they couldn’t make a living selling milk to a cooperative.
So he and co-owner Russ Seibert decided to start selling directly to consumers.
A bold undertaking
Setting up his own label was a daring move.
“The investment is huge; the regulatory process is daunting,” says Marti Day, cooperative extension dairy agent for Orange and three other counties. “They paved a path that had not been traveled before, and they’re brave pioneers for doing it.”
While direct-to-consumer bottling is fairly common in Northeastern states, Day says, Maple View was one of the first North Carolina dairies to try it. Others have followed, largely because of the Nutters’ influence, she says. Fluctuating milk prices and rising fuel costs combine for a challenging environment, she says — three Orange County dairy farms have closed in the last two years, leaving 15 still operating.
Nutter acknowledges he may be an innovator but quickly adds he’s just done what he had to do.
And he doesn’t mind doing things a bit differently. He decided, for instance, to open the Maple View ice cream store — on the first of January.
“Why? Because that’s when we got ready,” he says.
He doesn’t have an all-time favorite flavor — they make so many, he says. But, he adds, double chocolate “is still way up there on the list.”
The ice cream is another example of the farm-to-consumer marketing Nutter considers essential for family farms. He also sells beef.
Staying close to his land and animals is important. He’d rather see many smaller operations than a few modern factory farms. Maple View milks about 140 cows, close to the state average of 150 per dairy.
“I never wanted to be big,” he says. “If we can’t make money doing it in little ways, then we’ll just quit.”
Nutter is trying to leave a farm operation that stays viable as long as his descendants care to run it.
He and his wife of 31 years, Chris, have given conservation easements on almost half the 400-acre farm. The easements will prevent housing or commercial development, but allow for continued farming. There are tax benefits as well.
The conservation has had a ripple effect, says Jeff Masten, director of conservation strategy for Triangle Land Conservancy. Four or five other neighboring landowners have granted conservation easements as well.
Besides leaving a viable farm, the Nutters hope to have a lasting effect on children in the community. They’ve set up a fund to provide $12,000 a year to buy books for Orange County classrooms.
“I go and listen to the kids read,” Bob Nutter said. “You wouldn’t want to put money into something and not look after it, would you?”
The next project will be a 4,550-square-foot education building on the farm property. “Our goal is to try to educate kids about farming and agriculture and where food comes from,” he said.
The building will provide classroom space for school tours, with crops and animals for hands-on instruction. The Nutters are working to line up additional funding.
Sharing with children their life experience of country living and working the land is important to both Nutter and his wife. It concerns them that some may not have the chance to touch it.
“We both value the rural way of life,” Chris Nutter says. “We value green trees and fields. We find them beautiful. ... If we had a wish, it would be for everyone to have an experience where you’re not crowded.”
Standing in the farmyard on a cool winter day, Nutter coughs occasionally -- a nagging cold he can’t get rid of. He wears a dark blue sweatshirt embroidered in gold with the farm’s maple leaf logo, and a cap that says “Get Milk.” Short, unshaven, he moves with immense energy.
“I think I’d be unhappy not having anything to get up to do in the morning,” Nutter says. “I’m not happy just sitting around the house.”
Asked what he does for fun, he struggles for an answer. He already enjoys what he does, he says.
“I’ve had a good life and done what I wanted to do, and been able to make a living at the same time,” he says. “And hopefully, barring unforeseen things, my kids will be able to make a living.”
Robert “Bob” Nutter
BORN: Sept. 20, 1928, in Corinna, Maine
WIFE: Chris Nutter
CHILDREN: Marilyn Monroe of Hillsborough; Betsy Parker of Hurdle Mills; Arlene “Muffin” Brosig of Hillsborough; Jane Sellers of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Roger Nutter of Hillsborough
EDUCATION: Graduated from high school in Corinna, Maine, and attended the University of Maine for two years.