Milking Parlor: Wright's Dairy Farm & Bakery
You know as soon as you step into the parking lot that Wright’s is a working dairy farm. The slightly pungent, earthy smell is an odoriferous reminder that real cows live here. But it doesn’t deter the steady stream of customers who come to Wright’s Bakery for its enormous selection of sweet confections. The bakery is an irresistible draw despite its off-the-beaten- track location in an older suburban neighborhood.
“It’s a special, out-of-the-way trip for our customers,” says Ellen Puccetti, the director of sales and marketing. “But we offer value and a great experience.”
One of only 15 dairy farms left in Rhode Island, Wright’s Dairy Farm & Bakery in North Smithfield is a case study in the Darwinian necessity to adapt to changing markets. It’s a family enterprise that has managed to survive through four generations despite social and technological challenges that have drastically reduced the number of working dairy farms in Rhode Island. In 1950 there were 696 dairy farms in the state, according to Richard Greenwood, deputy director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
In 1900 George Wright bought about 75 acres of land just down the street from his boyhood home in the historic Union Village section of town. “He didn’t have a business plan,” says Ellen, his greatgranddaughter. “And most of it was unusable swampland.”
Ernest Wright, one of George’s seven children, took over the farm in 1920 and began a home delivery route. “He was a fantastic salesman,” says Ellen of her grandfather. “He loved the route.”
For Ernest every delivery was a visit to a friend. But in the early 1930s the United States began requiring milk to be pasteurized to protect against harmful bacteria that can cause salmonella and other diseases. It made milk safe for public consumption but the equipment was an expensive investment that most dairy farmers could not afford.
“Unlike apples or pumpkins, milk cannot be sold directly to the consumer,” explains Richard Greenwood. “It has to be processed and homogenized, so the dairy farmer has to deal with a middleman.”
Ernest made the investment in equipment to pasteurize, homogenize and package his milk on site. By the 1970s the dairy business was changing again. When Ellen’s parents, Ed and Claire Wright, took over, supermarkets and suburbanization made home delivery impractical. And frankly, Ed was not as gregarious as his father. He didn’t care about schmoozing with customers, says Ellen.
Ed discontinued the delivery route but, by establishing an on-site store to sell milk and eggs, he set the farm on a path that allowed it to survive, grow and prosper. The bakery began when Claire put a few of her home-baked pies in the self-serve store out front. The honor system didn’t work—the amount of money left didn’t match the number of pies that went out. But it proved that Claire’s pies, made with the farm’s dairy products, were popular.
A retail store followed and today the glass cases in the large, lightfilled store on Woonsocket Hill Road are filled with over 100 varieties of cakes, pies, cupcakes, pastries and cookies, including Wright’s famous hermits. And it’s all good.
“We didn’t have a book of family recipes,” says Ellen. “We’re always looking for ways to use our dairy products. Cream pies are our core product.”
There is also Wright’s ice cream: six flavors along with seasonal temptations like maple bacon, an intriguing sweet and salty combination created by Ellen’s brother-in-law, bakery manager Paul Dulude—an inspiration from the Food Channel. Surplus milk is shipped to an artisanal cheesemaking facility in Vermont and the cheddar is sold at two other outlets: Jaswell Farm in Smithfield and Stamp Farms in Johnston.
Paul, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, runs the bakery with a large staff of professional bakers and Ellen lends a hand by decorating cakes ordered for special occasions. The bakery opens at 8 am every day and customers with a sweet tooth eagerly wait to select a fresh cream-filled, velvety or flaky confection.
Ellen’s husband, Steve Puccetti, is the herd manager, responsible for the basic health of the Holstein cows, their synthetic- and hormonefree diet and the birthing of calves. A city boy who grew up in Boston, he always dreamed of being a farmer. Now he dreams of sleeping through the night. Steve is an early riser because the milking begins at 3 am. It’s a two-hour chore that’s repeated again at 3 pm. Every single day of the year.
Each of the 130 milking Holsteins wears a transponder so that Steve can monitor its health, reproduction and daily milk production. The computerized information is used to help make herd management decisions.
In its most recent move to keep up with changing times, Wright’s Farm built a state-of-the-art milking barn in 2009. The $1 million facility is an energy-efficient marvel. It has a radiant heated floor to reduce winter heating costs and cooling fans to keep the cows comfortable in summer. Open at both ends for better airflow, with lots of food and water and a quiet, no-stress atmosphere, the building is devoted to the comfort of these milk-producing bovines.
Milk is a fragile product and it has to be processed and refrigerated properly.
“Freshness makes a difference in the taste,” says Ellen. In talking about the current interest in locally produced food, she says, “What we’ve been doing here for years and years is now ‘popular.’ We were raised shopping at local food stores.” Wright’s offers tours to nearby schools and scout troops; some children are surprised to discover where their milk comes from.
The seasonal weather challenges, increasing costs, the huge investment in equipment and the long hours explain why dairy farming is not a growth business in Rhode Island.
“All our family functions are planned around the cows, keeping them happy,” says Ellen.
And it’s a large family. In addition to Paul and Steve, Ellen’s sister Elizabeth Dulude is the office manager. Brother Clayton is the crop manager, responsible for 100 acres of corn and feed grain. Brother-in-law Steve Roberts is the dairy manager.
The farm has 75 employees and several nieces and nephews work at Wright’s part time and during the summer. “Our standard for them is much higher than for our other employees,” says Ellen.
So how does a family-run operation manage to run smoothly?
“I’m not going to lie. It’s a challenge but we make a conscious effort to get along.”
Happy cows, happy family, happy customers
Wright’s Dairy Farm
200 Woonsocket Hill Rd., North Smithfield, RI
Bakery opens at 8 am, daily.
Watch the milking 3–5 pm, daily.