Even after decades of family farming, there is always room for a new idea.
Take that from Randy Lewis, owner of Ran Lew Dairy in Snow Camp. A fifth-generation dairy farmer, Lewis took over ownership of the farm in 1980, having bought the farm himself after his grandmother and mentor sold it among her family in the early 1970’s.
At the time, Lewis’ plan was to do as he’d always done – milk cows. Ran Lew Dairy has around 50 cows and produces whole milk, buttermilk, low-fat milk, chocolate milk and half-and-half. The farm had always been in the business of selling milk, but things eventually had to change, Lewis said. The farm could not be profitable because of low milk prices and drastically increased input costs over time.
“We’d been selling commercial milk forever, but it just got to the point where we couldn’t make a living anymore. We didn’t have enough land, couldn’t milk enough cows,” he said. “In this economy, you either get big, get out or find a niche market. You have to find a different way.”
Before long, Lewis and niece Megan Mann Riggins had begun workshopping the idea of making Grade A yogurt to further expand what Ran Lew had to offer.
Tragedy would soon cast doubt on that plan. On Sept. 2, 2012, Riggins, who was 37 weeks pregnant, died in a car wreck along with her unborn son when her vehicle hydroplaned while riding to the hospital after Riggins went into labor. The loss was a major blow to Lewis and his family, and the idea of carrying on with the yogurt project now seemed impossible.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to make yogurt by myself. She was going to be the next one to take this up when I was gone. She was the heir apparent you might say,” he said. “I learned the trade from my grandmother and she learned it from me. To be honest, she’s the reason I held on to the cows as long as I did, because I figured she’d want to come back to it. But I also knew I had to carry on with it.”
Lewis decided to, in his own words, “put it up to the fates.”
“I put in an application for a grant,” he said. “I decided that if we got funded, I’d carry on, and if we didn’t get the funding I would quit.”
As the “fates” would have it, Lewis got the funding he needed. He kept on going, and nowadays Ran Lew Dairy is known for both its usual milk products and a range of homemade gelato flavors. Lewis takes what he calls a “natural” approach to his milk, with as little processing as possible.
“All of our products are low-temperature pasteurized and not homogenized. My saying is that milk isn’t broken, and it doesn’t need fixing,” he said. “In my opinion the less you do to it, the better it is and the better it is for you, so we do the absolute minimum as far as processing goes while still following the [Pasteurized Milk Ordinance].”
This way of doing things admittedly limits the kinds of products Ran Lew can make, Lewis said, but it also means that buyers can be completely confident in what they are getting.
That is important, because most of Ran Lew’s products go to wholesale instead of retail. As the business has grown, Lewis has been able to cultivate relationships with other local entities in order to find more markets.
“Through the Got to Be NC program’s Flavors of Carolina food show, we were able to meet up with the chefs at Elon University. They’re in the same county as we are, and they seemed interested in what we were doing,” he said. “About two years ago they started buying eggnog from us. That’s what got us started, and then last spring they turned into our biggest account.”
This spirit of local cooperation has come to mean a lot to Lewis. Ran Lew Dairy sources as many products like peaches from Kalawi Farms and strawberries from Lewis Farms, T5 Farms and Kirk Farms.
“It wasn’t something on my mind to begin with, but as I got more into it and started understanding how this works, I think we all need to be supporting each other as best we can,” he said. “This is the way I can do it, by buying products from local people. I buy strawberries from two guys next door whenever they’re in season.”
Ran Lew makes six gelato flavors – chocolate, vanilla, butter pecan, chocolate mint, strawberry and buttermilk. Buying local also opens up opportunities for occasional specialty flavors made from regional delights like pawpaw and honeysuckle.
Things tend to come full circle, however, and the “fates” once again had something to say about Ran Lew Dairy’s operations.
“Recently, the universities have started requesting that we make yogurt. That was always the plan between Megan and me before she died, but we’d kind of put that on the shelf,” Lewis said. “They’re looking for a local yogurt, and there wasn’t one available. We’ve been doing some research, and I think we’ve got it just about figured out, so with any luck we’re going to start making yogurt and have it ready by the time school starts back at Elon.”
It is a testament to Lewis and his team that, going on nine years after Riggins’ death, Ran Lew Dairy has not only adapted and thrived but even brought her original vision to life. Lewis credited his team for making Ran Lew’s success possible.
“Taylor Hayes is our bottling plant manager, and she also does all the processing and marketing Our social media is pretty good as far as I hear, and they always think I do it but I never know what they’re talking about,” he said with a laugh.” She’s an integral part of the process, and it would be hard for us to do what we do without her.”
Even younger members of Lewis’ family are getting involved.
“My younger niece Mikayla has come up and I’m transitioning her to being in the leadership role that Megan was probably going to take. She’s still learning, but she’s stepping up and doing a good job,” he said. “She’s getting the job done and I’m very proud of her for that.”
Ran Lew Dairy products are available at certain retail outlets, as well as for curbside pickup at 3978 Lewis Road, Snow Camp. For more information, visit https://ranlewdairy.com or check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RanLewMilk.