GREAT EGGSPECTATIONS: Dry Ridge Farm supplies Asheville locals and restaurants with eggs aplenty

At Dry Ridge Farm, there’s no doubt which came first: It was the chicken.

When Wendy and Graham Brugh bought land in Mars Hill in 2011, their goal was to start an operation that could quickly get product to local farmers markets. So they bought 150 laying hens, and by spring 2012, they were selling their eggs at the East Asheville Tailgate Market, the Oakley Farmers Market and ASAP’s Asheville City Market South in Biltmore Village (the latter two are no longer in operation).

The couple first met at a summer camp in Brevard when they were 16 years old, but they didn’t connect for 10 more years. Neither one was raised on a farm and each developed an interest in agriculture in high school, which they pursued in various ways. Their paths crossed again when both were working in the Piedmont area — she was helping open a grocery in a low-wealth neighborhood in Durham, and he was working on a large, grass-fed beef farm outside Chapel Hill.

Cooler temperatures and a less-saturated market than the Triangle lured the couple to Western North Carolina; finding a 43-acre property with 40 acres of immediately usable grazing pasture launched Dry Ridge Farm. Shortly after getting their laying hens settled, says Wendy, they added broilers, 15 pigs, 20 pregnant ewes, and rabbits. “We thought we could get our foot in the market door with eggs, chicken and rabbits, and add pork and lamb when they were ready, which was near the end of that first market season.”

They discovered the public was not keen on buying rabbit, and not particularly on board with lamb either. “Americans have an issue with eating cute animals,” Wendy explains. “And lamb is the one thing named for the baby animal. People probably wouldn’t eat as much pork if it was called piglet.”

So rabbit became their entrée to the local restaurant market when John Fleer began purchasing that and then lamb ribs for his restaurant, Rhubarb. When the farm’s pork production outgrew retail sales at markets, the Brughs began supplying restaurants with that as well, and eventually replaced their sheep with cows.

Meanwhile, their eggs were selling out at markets, so they kept expanding that side of the operation. “Our second year we doubled laying hens to 300, and then the next year to 600,” Wendy recalls. “By 2019, we were up to 2,000 birds.”

That was when they constructed a larger barn with feeding, watering, and nesting-box systems, and began wholesaling eggs. “We saw there was a need for wetland, pasture-raised, high-quality eggs in Asheville restaurants,” Wendy points out.

And then came March 2020, when Covid shut down all the restaurants, also closing the pipeline for the 700 dozen eggs they were selling weekly to that customer base. “Over the next four weeks, we donated about 2,000 dozen eggs, mostly to restaurant industry workers,” Wendy recalls. “It felt good to support people who had supported us.”

She set up accounts with retailers like Mother Earth Food, Zadie’s in Marshall and Food Matters in Brevard; Dry Ridge’s sales at tailgate markets exploded, and by June, many restaurant clients had pivoted to some type of service.

These days, Dry Ridge Farm is clucking along, with sales of pork and beef limited to tailgate markets — this season, the farm vends at ASAP’s Asheville City Market downtown, the North Asheville Tailgate Market, and the West Asheville Tailgate Market.

The most substantial sector of their business is eggs, and the Brughs have purchased equipment and added staff to support that. In addition to the flock of 2,000 birds on their Mars Hill property, they have another 2,000-bird flock on leased land in Weaverville. All 4,000 chickens spend their days outdoors, coming home to roost for the night in the barn or egg-mobiles — chicken coops on wheels.

Each system has rollout nest boxes, which send the eggs to a conveyor belt for collection by human hands. They’re then taken to the farm’s new egg-washing machine (which still requires 21 hours of human power weekly), then to a vacuum-pack machine for placement in cartons or flats.

About 75% of Dry Ridge Farms’ total business is wholesale, and of that, 70% is restaurants; the biggest customers are RhubarbSunny Point CaféCúrate, and ELDR.

Wendy says their two children — Mollie Mae, 8, and Riley, 6 — are farm kids through and through. “They know the pigs are not pets, but they do get attached to the runts of the litter,” she says. “They can pick them out of the crowd, and they think they’re just so cute.”

For more on Dry Ridge Farm, visit dryridgefarm.org

Written by Kay West
Photos courtesy of Dry Ridge Farm