by Sally Colby
Ellen Puccetti is a dairy farmer on a North Smithfield, RI dairy farm that was started by her great-grandfather in 1914. Over the years, the family has allowed changes in customer preferences to help them shape the farm for the future.
Ellen’s forward-thinking grandfather started a milk processing plant on the farm when pasteurization became standard in the 1940s. He purchased the dairy equipment necessary for on-site processing and sold milk through a home delivery route to customers in the community.
When Ellen’s parents took over the farm in the early 1970s, they discontinued home delivery. Going with current trends, they started an on-farm store where customers could purchase milk. “They had discontinued the home delivery route and asked customers to come to the farm,” said Ellen. “At the time, we were selling a lot of skim milk, so the heavy cream was a by-product of the skim milk. We decided to make some cream puffs with the extra-heavy cream — that was added value. They started using heavy cream and surplus milk in the bakery for items such as whipped cream pastries, custard pies and chocolate pies.”
Ellen said the bakery has expanded substantially since it started, with several growth spurts along the way. The current milking herd includes about 100 cows and milk is still processed on-site and sold in the store. Customers appreciate being able to pick up whole milk, two percent or skim milk as well as chocolate, strawberry and coffee flavored milk. Ellen said that coffee is a year-round New England favorite, and eggnog is popular during the holidays.
The newest dairy product made on-site is ice cream, which is sold in quarts and half pints. The dairy sends milk to a cheese plant in Vermont that returns it as cheese curds, which Ellen said are popular at several local restaurants that use it in their featured poutine.
Although some of the dairy equipment is the same as it was in the 40s, the family has made upgrades as they were able. One notable change was from the original vat pasteurization system to a short-time, high-temperature system in the 1980s. However, Ellen said that it’s a small system and parts are difficult to find.
“We milk the cows, process the milk and sell it right there,” said Ellen, describing the cow-to-bottle process. “We’re able to keep a close watch on what the cows are being fed to maintain a good flavor and shelf life for the milk. We think that’s what makes us special.”
Because much of the farm ground isn’t suitable for pasture, the cow herd is housed in a freestall barn. Cows receive a balanced TMR to ensure a consistent feed source that provides essential nutrients for optimum performance. “We grow most of our corn and hay,” said Ellen. “We buy grain (protein supplement) and some of the straw. We work with a nutritionist to balance the ration.”
Young calves are raised on the farm to about four or five months, then are finished by a custom calf grower. Heifers return to the farm when they’re ready to freshen, bred to the family’s specifications.
Ellen said the family is in the process of doing some market research to determine who their target customer is. “We’ve always thought of it as families, but as families have grown and the younger generation is coming in, they aren’t milk drinkers like in the past,” she said. “It’s a national trend that milk sales are down, and people are drinking water and other beverages — how do we compete with that? It seems like more value-added products are the answer.”
Although gallon sales are still strong, Ellen hasn’t seen growth in that segment. She noted that the bakery accounts for about 60 percent of sales and is a suitable complement to dairy products. “Someone comes in for milk and they’ll pick up muffins or pastry,” she said. “But people who are coming in just for pastry rarely get milk.”
Realizing their customer base is always looking for something new, the family tries to determine what customers want; focusing on seasonal and holiday specials because people tend to make impulse purchases at those times. “With every season, we flip the entire product line around,” said Ellen. “In fall, it’ll be geared toward apples and caramel. We have a core group of products that we maintain year-round but regular customers like to see something different. If something wasn’t doing well and we phase it out after a season or a holiday, we’ll bring it back and try to revitalize it with a different twist to give it new life with a different shape, different packaging. We’re a work in progress all the time.”
Ellen’s daughter, Cathryn Kennedy, attended the University of Massachusetts and obtained a degree in Food Science, returning to the business several years ago to manage the dairy plant. “We were already making ice cream, but she took it under her wing and pushed forward with fine-tuning the recipe, making it consistent and offering a variety of flavors,” said Ellen. “She has experimented a lot with social media and the pop-up ice cream shops we had, which were a big hit in summer.”
The pop-up ice cream shop was initiated for June Dairy Month as an ice cream promotion. “We did a pop-up shop every Thursday,” said Ellen. “Our regular store closes at 7, so we did a 7 to 9 pop-up shop with a different flavor sundae each week. One week had traditional vanilla with hot fudge and one with caramel, and we paired with a local donut shop and used a donut in the ice cream. That was a big hit. We also paired with a local brewery and did an ice cream float with a dark beer.”
Ellen said that as a millennial, Cathryn is in touch with the interests of people in her age group. “The farm is a short distance from Providence, so there’s a large population who like what the farm offers,” said Ellen. “We try to coordinate our efforts through print and social media to generate as much buzz as possible.”
Wright’s Dairy Farm is truly a family farm, and is currently being operated by family members including Ellen and her siblings who own the business. While Ellen’s sister Jennifer isn’t directly involved in the farm, sister Elizabeth Dulude is the office manager and Elizabeth’s husband Paul is the bakery manager. Brother Clayton Wright manages crops and farm maintenance. Ellen’s husband Steven Puccetti is the farm manager and their son-in-law Jared Brong is the herdsman. Another daughter, Rachel, is the herd nutritionist. Ellen handles sales and marketing.
“Everyone has a niche, and it’s a diverse group of talents,” said Ellen. “All of the cousins have put time in waiting on customers through high school and college.”
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