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1509 PD: Local marketing provides niche for Rhode Island dairy

Alisa Anderson Published on 07 October 2009

Wright’s Dairy Farm near North Smithfield, Rhode Island, is a small, family-run, 140-cow dairy. The dairy sits on 90 acres, and the family rents 150 acres to grow corn silage on. What sets this dairy apart from most is that they process their milk and sell it in a little store right on their property.

“What kind of differentiates us from all the markets and the gas stations is that customers can come see the animals, and the milk stays right in one location, so there is really a difference in taste and freshness. And for people that this matters to, it’s a huge deal. We have customers that are multi-generational. We have a very loyal milk clientele. They do care that it is local, and that is why they make the extra trip to come to us,” says Elizabeth Dulude, a family member who works on the retail side of the business.

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Wright’s Dairy Farm has marketed its milk locally from the time it was established. Dulude’s great-grandfather, George Wright, bought the land and started with a few cows in 1896. He started a milk delivery service for his local customers.

When pasteurization became a requirement in the 1930s, he built a processing plant and started selling the milk in bottles. Dulude’s parents, Edward and Claire Wright, bought the farm in the 1970s. Edward built a retail store to sell the milk in.

The family has continued to sell their milk from their store, expanding their products to flavored milks, light and heavy cream and eggnog. The recent interest in locally produced food has given their market a boost.

“We’ve always been here, and we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the last hundred years. But we fall into that niche pretty well. Everybody has started going green and going to the local farm. The people that are willing to go out of their way to get the farm-fresh milk, they have to drive that extra couple of miles to get it if they want to see where it’s coming from and to support local,” says Clayton Wright, a family member who works on the farm.

Rachel Brong, family member and herd manager at the dairy, notes that a local co-op nearby has taken advantage of the interest in locally produced food.

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“The co-op of other local Rhode Island dairy producers are bottling and labeling their milk as local, fresh and produced in Rhode Island. It’s at all the grocery stores. It looks like they have really benefitted from the local thing,” Brong says.

Processing and selling their own milk has allowed them to bypass the middleman and charge a price that covers their costs. Although the decline in the economy has caused a drop in their sales, they’ve been able to get through the tough times a little easier.

Along with processing and bottling their own milk, the family has to do the marketing themselves. Wright says it is important to “research the local market base and see what people in that area are looking for – if they want to see it right on the farm or if they just want to see a nice packaging with a store environment. Some people come to our place and they get turned off when they see the milk coming out of the cow. They still want to support local, but they don’t want to see where it is coming from.”

Advertising has been an important aspect of building a customer base.

“We’ve expanded into marketing with TV advertisements, and we’re pushing a lot more with local newspapers. We’re going more with the local, once-a-week paper. A lot of local people read that. The TV has been pretty big too. We just started that a year ago. A lot of people see the commercials and they like them, and it seemed to come off really big. So we’re going to be expanding the TV commercial to a broader range of cable channels,” Wright says.

Building a loyal customer base that has confidence in them has been important to successfully marketing their milk locally. The family has direct, personal contact with most of their customers, which Wright says helps them build that base.

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The direct contact the Wrights have with their consumers allows them to respond to the consumers’ concerns more quickly than if they were selling their milk to a co-op or milk processer. Their milk isn’t put in a tank with other producers’ milk, and customers can go directly to the source when there is a problem.

In December, the Wrights started feeding BMR corn silage to their milking cows. Soon they received feedback that indicated the milk had developed an off-flavor that the customers didn’t like.

“It was losing its shelf life after two or three days. They’d bring it back and we’d replace it, just figuring that it went bad. But what was happening was the flavor was coming from the oxidation of the milk, and it would lose its shelf life after two or three days. It was a very unique situation, which made it more difficult to solve,” Wright says.

Wright and Brong finally made the connection that the BMR corn was causing the problem. The corn went through the cows’ digestive system too fast and created too much unsaturated fat in the milk.

“We did keep a lot of people that stayed with us and weathered this storm with us. But there were a lot of people that we had to get in touch with and tell them that everything was okay and explain to them what happened. We kept them really in the loop on what the problem was and that it wasn’t a major health issue; the milk just wasn’t keeping its shelf life,” Wright says.

Wright and Brong now taste-test the milk themselves every day and periodically send it to a specialist at Cornell University. Wright says that many customers who stopped buying because of the flavor issue have come back and are continuing as loyal customers.

Despite the added challenges of marketing to local customers and building a consumer base, processing and selling their own milk has been a benefit to their operation.

“Being able to market our milk locally and sell it out of our store is undoubtedly the biggest thing that has contributed to our success. Our cost of production here is high. We’re in Rhode Island – there’s not a lot of land and the land isn’t extremely productive compared to elsewhere. So being able to get a premium for our milk has really helped,” Brong says. PD

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