Wright found success by taking his dairy farm back to basics
by Brett Bralley
Star Staff Writer
Jul 07, 2010 | 3575 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Star takes a look at how ice cream is made at Wright Dairy Farm.
Wright Dairy Farm
The Star takes a look at how ice cream is made at Wright Dairy Farm.
At Wright Dairy in Alexandria, owner David Wright has made it his priority to produce fresh products for his community, including milk, ice cream, cheese and other goods.

While his operation is mostly organic, and his cows are hormone- and antibiotic-free, Wright Dairy was a very different operation when it first started.

The dairy's history extends back to the 1940s, when David Wright's parents, Milton and Ruth Wright, were running a dairy farm, named Riverbend Farm, in Ragland.

Milton Wright started his farm in 1947, but it wasn't until 1972 that David Wright ventured into the dairy business himself. He had just returned from working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and had a couple of years of college under his belt, along with a bit of dairying experience from his father. At the time, Milton had stepped out of the business.

David, however, dove into it, and soon acquired about 30 dairy cows — more than he could handle, he said. So he and his father formed a partnership.

A few years after they partnered, David purchased a new property, Canebrake Farm in Alexandria, with an already established herd of cattle. For several years, cattle were raised on Milton's farm and milked on David's farm. Father and son remained business partners until about 16 years ago. Milton passed away in 2007.

Business thrived for the first 10 years of dairying, but the next 10 proved to be more difficult. Market prices were up, then down, and David Wright found a lot of money was being spent on transportation, processing and distribution.

In 1999, around the time David married his wife, Leianne, they switched to selling products directly from the dairy farm instead of transporting and distributing to other companies. They also took an organic approach, something Wright predicted would appeal to the community.

"I could see there was a change in consumer attitudes," he said.

His customers have embraced the idea of fresh and local products, he said. They seem to be more concerned with where their food comes from, how it is prepared and how good it is for them.

Keeping his cows antibiotic- and hormone-free is a practice he has always embraced. Typically, antibiotics are used to eliminate diseases that spread from cow to cow in crowded dairy plants, Wright explained. Hormones are typically used to produce more milk.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that meat producers use fewer antibiotics in their cattle, saying the use of them in animals might be contributing to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans.

"It used to be that the cheapest food available is what (consumers) were interested in, but food is not all the same, and milk is not all the same," Wright said. "The way it is produced makes a huge difference, and so we've embraced that."

One of the first changes Wright made was downsizing.

"We eventually sold the cows down from about 240 to 65 or 70 cows, which was enough to keep the bottling plant going, and it brought back profit to us," he said.

Another modification was letting cattle graze about the property while rotating pastures for grazing, instead of hauling feed to one place and then hauling manure away.

"We made those decisions and embrace organic practices as much as we can," he said. "Some things we can't meet — we're not certified organic."

For instance, though what he grows is organic, some of the feed he uses as supplement for the cows is not organic, since he hasn't found organic feed in the area.

But this doesn't deter customers from buying gallons of fresh milk and pints of signature ice cream flavors.

"They know where food is coming from," Wright said. "We guarantee the quality. (Wright's) is right there in the community. The concept of the community dairy was a big thing 60 or 50 years ago, but it just sort of changed over the years. And now it's making a circle, history repeating itself and coming back to it again."

Though local dairies have faded out over the years, Wright has noticed several new dairy enterprises, such as Mountain View Dairy in Piedmont and Fromagerie Belle Chèvre in Elkmont (both of which raise goats and sell primarily goat cheese). The good thing is, he said, they aren't competing. In many circumstances, dairy farmers are helping each other out.

Wright's goal is to help out other vendors of local products. He sells meat from Thompson's Meat Processing Company, as well as eggs from local chicken farmers Audrey Owens in Alexandria and James Chandler in Jacksonville. He sells butter, cheeses, jams, jellies and pickles from Amish companies, as well as locally produced soaps, candles and honey.

In turn, some of Wright's products are sold in Birmingham, Atlanta and Chattanooga. Whole Foods in Birmingham, for instance, sells Wright's gourmet Yellow Moon cheeses.

Most of Wright's days are spent overseeing production — from milk bottling to ice cream making. And he devotes a good amount of time to cheese production, keeping an eye on the wheels of cheese aging in his "cheese cave." Making cheese is more of a science, while producing the other dairy products is more mechanical.

While making a profit and experiencing success is important to Wright, what comes foremost is gratefulness for being able to do what he loves.

"I appreciate the fact that God's let me do this for all these years, because it's been what I've wanted to do," he said. "I complain about the weather and working all the time, but I don't know what else I'd do." Dairy farming is in his blood.

"I'd like to think that when I leave here and leave this farm, it'll be in better shape than it was when I found it. It wasn't in bad shape when I found it — it was a good farm — but hopefully it'll be a better farm. By God's blessing and his grace, he lets people like me kind of rent the farm from him for a while. It all belongs to him as far as I'm concerned," he said. "You've got to take care of the land."

Contact Brett Bralley at blbralley@gmail.com.

We all scream for ice cream

Wright Dairy has been making super-premium ice cream for about seven years now. In the summertime, the dairy produces about 150 gallons a week. The most popular flavor is vanilla, followed by chocolate. Signature flavors are Purple Cow (grape-flavored), Strawberried Alive, Butter Pecan and Black Walnut. Sometimes David Wright will feature other flavors; right now he is selling Mint Chocolate Chip. Chocolate and vanilla are sold by the half pint, while the rest can be purchased by the half gallon.

Who's your farmer?

David Wright

Wright Dairy, 241 Cane Creek Farm Road, Alexandria, (256) 820-1020, www.wrightdairy.com

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.

What you can buy: milk, chocolate milk, buttermilk, ice cream, butter, cheese, eggs, canned goods, soaps, face and skin care products, candles, honey, and some meats. A gallon of milk (whole or 1 percent low-fat) is $4.95. A half gallon of ice cream is $6-$7.50. Cheese is $5-$10 a pound (cheese made by Wright is closer to $10, while cheese made by the Amish runs a bit cheaper).
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