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Ice-cream, from cow to cone
The West Australian Picture: Becky Felstead

Everyone loves ice-cream. Especially Cowaramup dairy farmer Paul Miller, whose family has just opened a fourth Millers Ice Cream scoop shop in Rockingham - with 24 flavours for young and old. Rum 'n' raisin, mascarpone and wild fig, coffee and ginger, Snickers, choc mint, Caramello, honeycomb crunch, passionfruit and cookies 'n' cream are just a taste of the range that changes with the seasons. But vanilla, as always, is the most popular.

"It's the bestseller by far and my two children, Mitch, 10, and Jesse, 8, are our number two and number three biggest fans," he said.

"Number one fan is my dad, who's pushing me to make an avocado, coconut and lemon we did for him as a treat. I'm still not sure about it but he's rapt. The dairy-free chocolate sorbet is pretty popular as well, much to my dismay. Kids see the chocolate and go for it."

A third-generation dairy farmer, Mr Miller has licked the odds of falling milk prices by value adding what he does best. Think of it as "cow to cone". His 150 Holstein- Friesian herd is milked twice a day. Pasteurisation is in small batches and there's no homogenisation, just like in the old days when the cream separated and sat at the top of the bottle.

"It's a farm-based operation; we grow the grass, milk the cows, make the ice-cream," Mr Miller said.

"The only time our milk is pumped is when it leaves the cow, so it's not carted around in trucks, and we don't strip out any fat or add protein. 'Nothing added and nothing taken out', that's our motto. The final product tastes spectacularly like milk used to and you could be drinking it in your coffee at the farm shop at 10am from a cow milked the same morning."

With outlets at the farm cafe in Cowaramup, Margaret River town centre, Xscape at the Cape in Dunsborough and Rockingham Shopping Centre, Mr Miller sees a future for the 105ha farm that's been through tough times since deregulation in 2000. With the average dairy farmer receiving about 46¢ a litre, profitability has been tight and weathering the Challenge Dairy collapse in 2010 was a nightmare because he and wife Trish had just renovated a cottage into a farm cafe, set up a child-focused playground with picnic tables, done ice-cream courses and invested in Italian processing equipment.

"We were selling all our milk to Challenge, so there was a cash-flow issue, and we would have got through that a lot easier had we not decided to branch out," he said.

"We had to pull out all the stops to open for Christmas that year to make the most of summer trade.

"I had absolutely no idea it would get this big. When we started, it was just something for us to have on the farm because it just seemed to me that if we had another 10 years like we'd just had, my farming life would be spent going nowhere.

"It was a case of having more to lose by not letting the ice-cream business side of things grow - and we had all sorts of survival plans.

"Sure it's nice to have acreage but farming is not financially rewarding and the reality was if I didn't milk cows, I didn't need all this land, so who knows where that would have led us because I can't control the farm-gate and supermarket milk prices, or rising outgoings such as grain, fodder, diesel, electricity and wages.

"As it turned out, from the day we first opened, we started getting calls from all over the place about how good the ice-cream was, so it's kind of evolved with us trying to keep pace - the farm, the shops, the kids, the office, running a business from home. We all came in at the deep end and it's taken over."

Mr Miller's brother and sister-in-law, Peter and Tammy Miller, run the Margaret River and Rockingham stores.

"For us, the idea is to get to a place where we have some balance in life," Mr Miller said.

"We're in the process of cutting back milk production and increasing value adding. We're about 3.5km off the highway and have designed the farm to be a tourist destination, which it wasn't before."

Best of all, the ice-cream, which is technically gelato, comes in at 6-8 per cent fat but still has a smooth, creamy texture that's hard to beat. It's made with Italian pastes for consistency year-round but fresh fruit and local ingredients are added in season to amp up flavours.

Try it in a cone, bucket or one-litre tub to take home, the choice is yours. The farm cafe also does bottled milk, milkshakes and milk soap, some of which are available from the other outlets. But please, don't ask for skinny or light. Mr Miller said his milk averaged only 4 per cent fat.

"A lot of parents buy the ice-cream in a bucket so kids can put it down but we do have a replacement policy with cones if a scoop topples out," he said.

'We grow the grass, milk the cows, make the ice-cream.'