Economic pressures have caused many Alabama dairy farms to dry up, but Wright Dairy in Calhoun County continues to reinvent itself to meet consumer demand.
Originally a commercial dairy, David Wright transformed the farm into a agritourism destination in the 2000s by selling ice cream and non-homogenized milk from his on-farm store. Today, the dairy once known as the place “where the cream still rises to the top” is carving out a slice of the cheese market.
“After 16 years of running a store, we thought we might rather do something a little different, and seasonal dairying appealed to me,” Wright said. “We switched to making cheese and butter four years ago.”
Guy Hall of the Alabama Farmers Federation said low commodity prices, coupled with increased labor and regulatory costs, are causing farmers to explore niche markets for artisan farm products.
“Many farms, particularly dairy farms, have to work smarter to stay in business,” said Hall, the Federation’s Dairy, Pork and Poultry Divisions director. “Farmers are incredibly resourceful, and David exemplifies that with his cheese-making operation.”
Wright admits switching from milk to cheese wasn’t easy.
“Bottling milk is about 95 percent mechanical and 5 percent science,” he said. “Cheese is a different story. It’s about 5 percent mechanical, and the rest of it is strictly science because there’s a lot of chemistry going on in there.”
Time, temperature, cultures and acidity affect the taste, type and quality of cheese. Wright keeps a detailed logbook because a slight change in conditions could result in an especially flavorful product.
“Some days things happen — something in the process of making that cheese goes awry — and you do it differently. Six months later, you might try the cheese and say, ‘Wow! That’s better than usual.’ So a lot of cheeses have been made by mistake; any cheesemaker will tell you that.”
The Wrights produce nine kinds of cheese, including classic cheddar, Gouda and pepper cheeses, as well as specialties like Italian truffle cheese and a beer cheese. Their cheeses and butter are sold at farmers markets near the Wrights’ Alexandria farm. David and wife Leianne have plans to provide cheese and butter to area restaurants, too.
The dairy industry in Alabama is evolving, and Wright is optimistic.
“My son is interested in making cheese, so when he gets out of college, he may decide to come on board. But if he doesn’t, that’s fine, too. We don’t have to do this forever. I’ve always heard that old dairymen never die, they just clabbor.”