Call me crazy, but I like checking up on local processors, even when I’m on vacation.

Call me crazy, but I like checking up on local processors, even when I’m on vacation.

That’s why last month, on a family trip to Nashville, I decided to stop by Purity Dairies. I knew from an “official” visit there a couple of years ago that Purity has a visitor center at its now-shuttered ice cream plant, so I thought it would be a good chance to give my daughter, nearly 5, a glimpse of what Daddy does when he goes off on his business trips. Plus, we could get some ice cream.

So I e-mailed Mark Ezell to let him know we planned to swing by for a purely social call. A few weeks later, my wife, daughter and I found ourselves at Purity’s visitor center on Murfreesboro Road near downtown Nashville. As the little one tucked into an ice cream sandwich, Mark came over to say “hi” and chat a while. Next thing I knew, the four of us were suited up with hair nets and lab coats, with Mark leading little Mia by the hand for a personal tour of the milk plant.

My daughter’s eyes widened as Mark explained in simple terms how milk gets put into bottles and turned into cottage cheese. She giggled as he hoisted her up in his arms to get a better look inside a form-fill-seal machine. She gaped in amazement as a droopy piece of soft plastic suddenly became a gallon jug in the blow molder. And we all chuckled as Mark had us riding milk crates along the floor chain. Finally, Mia went a few rounds of demolition derby with Mark, with some toy cars in his office.

Two days later, after trips to the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville Zoo and some outlet shopping, Mia declared the visit to Purity her favorite part of our trip. I’m sure it’s something she won’t soon forget.

The experience – entirely unexpected – is one Daddy won’t soon forget either. I’ve often said that some of the greatest people working today can be found in the dairy industry, and my family’s experience with Mark Ezell took that up another notch. I’m proud to have gotten to know Mark well; he is a true Southern gentleman and one of dairy’s noblemen.

And it drove home the point to me even more that it’s the people that make this industry so great, the multiple generations of folks who have dedicated themselves to perfecting their craft and serving their local consumers as only regional management truly can.

As all businesses grapple with these tough economic times, it’s important to remember who helped make them a success and who, in a pinch, are the best equipped and most devoted to pulling the industry through whatever lies ahead, given the freedom to do so as local conditions require.

Streamlining to improve efficiencies is fine, but without experienced talent on the front lines – those with the pulse of local hometown consumers and deep expertise of this historic industry – you become a cold, faceless corporate entity, an image at odds with the fun, wholesome product you’re selling.