Out in the country, eight miles south of Oxford, Mississippi, Billy Ray Brown embarked on a risky venture last year by opening the doors to his new small dairy on his farm, ignoring the advice of seasoned dairymen across the state and pursuing his dream of building a niche business.
Just past its one-year anniversary, the dairy continues to find success selling pasteurized, non-
homogenized milk in glass containers to customers at farmers’ markets, local groceries and restaurants.
Brown’s success is rare in northwest Mississippi, where hundreds of small family dairies once dotted the landscape. Today, the few commercial dairy farms left are milking hundreds of cows and still find themselves in the red.
Only in his 30s, Brown, son of the late Southern writer Larry Brown, originally began thinking about a dairy about three years ago while shopping with his wife at a discount store. There, he noticed organic milk from Colorado and asked the manager about the sales.
“He said they couldn’t keep it stocked,” Brown says.
Having raised cattle since he was 15, Brown was knowledgeable about beef cattle, but not dairy cows. As he sought advice from area extension staff and other farmers, he found more skepticism than support.
“One man said, ‘Son, I believe you have lost your mind,’” Brown says. An easygoing man, Brown wasn’t deterred.
With help from Mike Foshee and a host of other friends, Brown began construction in March 2008 and spent two years building the milking parlor and scouring the country for dairy equipment. Still working full time and helping his wife, Paula, raise their three children, Brown made slow progress on the dairy barn and milking parlor. Once finished, Brown had invested about $100,000 in the business, borrowing only a portion.
Brown bought his first four Jersey cows and started milking in June 2009. Demand grew, and he added more cows throughout the year. Today, he milks 11 cows.
From the start, Brown knew his business model would be the key to his success. Instead of selling his milk on the open market, Brown chose to sell directly to consumers, and he handles everything – milking, processing and bottling – on the farm.
When he started, Brown averaged 30 gallons of milk per day. Today, the cows produce nearly 50 gallons.
Watching costs closely, he is relying mostly on grass and supplementing with feed. Cows graze on ryegrass in the spring and fescue during the rest of the season. He supplements with hay in the winter.
“I only feed them enough grain to (lure) them to the barn for milking,” Brown says.
Brown Family Dairy is equipped with new and used equipment found locally and out of state. All the pasteurization equipment came from a New Hampshire dairy.
The milk is pasteurized but not homogenized, which allows the cream to rise to the top. The dairy is inspected by the Mississippi Department of Health.
Brown milks twice a day for about an hour, and Paula handles the bottling. Brown Family Dairy sells a half gallon for $4 and, in the last 10 months, has also added cream and butter. He charges a $3 bottle deposit for new customers, which is returned if a customer stops buying milk.
Looking back at his barn and parlor design, Brown thinks he would have changed only two things.
“I would have made the processing room bigger and would have gotten a much bigger pasteurizer.” Brown currently has a 30-gallon pasteurizer, but in hindsight he might have purchased a 100-gallon pasteurizer.
“It’s easy to say now, but you’ve got to fit the equipment to the cow size.”
Brown developed and maintains a customer list, and, during the 2009 winter season, he created a CSA to distribute milk in nearby Hernando, 62 miles northwest of Oxford. He joined the Hernando Farmers’ Market for only two weeks in late October, but customers were willing to meet him each Saturday on the square to pick up their milk – despite any adverse weather.
The dairyman’s business has grown through word-of-mouth, and sales are growing faster than elsewhere in Hernando, a bedroom community located just south of Memphis, Mississippi.
Set amid a grassy, rolling landscape, Brown Family Dairy welcomes visitors, and it’s not unusual to find Paula and the children outside around the barn. Brown hosts schoolchildren and laughs at their questions, which he hopes are only about the cows and the dairy.
For this honest, plain-spoken man, the dairy has also fulfilled a greater ambition. “I wanted to spend more time with my wife and family. In my other job, I was gone all the time.”
Even with a twice-daily, endless commitment to milking cows, the Browns don’t mind because everyone is finally home.
A freelance writer for more than a decade, Karen Ott Mayer lives on a small farm in the hill country of northern Mississippi.