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Dairy industry in Vermont part of ‘working landscape’

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest state — Vermont.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Vermont is known for its agricultural landscape and high-quality food products, from local milk and maple syrup to big brands like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, King Arthur Flour and Cabot Cheddar.

“In general, the state of Vermont is really focused on maintaining its working landscape. The residents of Vermont want to be able to drive throughout the state and see working farms with cows, sheep and goats out on pasture,” says Tom Bivens, executive director, Vermont Cheese Council. “Tourism is very much based on the way Vermont looks and feels. It doesn’t look or feel like any other state, because there are thriving, working farms dotted throughout the state for folks to work at, visit and participate in as a customer. It has a really wholesome appearance to folks.”

In 2017, Vermont’s 129,000 cows produced 2.7 million pounds of milk. Major cooperatives in Vermont include Agri-Mark, which provides milk for Cabot and McCadam, as well as Dairy Farmers of America and St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which partner with a number of Northeast processors.

Vermont is home to 753 cow dairies, 39 goat dairies and five sheep dairies, and many of its farmers are multigenerational, says E.B. Flory, dairy section chief, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The largest concentrations of dairy farms are in Addison, Franklin and Orleans counties, while others run farmstead operations in the Vermont hillsides.

There are 67 farmstead dairy producer-processors in Vermont.

“Culturally, Vermont has a history of dairy farming, and its people are very passionate and dedicated to that. It’s very admirable, and many are family farms, passed down multiple generations,” Flory says, adding that she has met some seventh- and eighth-generation Vermont farmers. “I see Vermont as a state that’s very dedicated to dairy and doing this as a family, the way they raise and treat animals, and doing things right environmentally.”

Vermont’s reputation for quality cheese also has a long history linked to the state’s dairy farms.

“I think quality is first on the list of why the artisan cheese industry has taken off and flourished in Vermont,” says Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts. “I think it begins with quality milk and attention to taking care of the animals. Throughout the years, a tremendous amount of work has been done on education ... it starts with the cows and quality milk, and from that comes quality cheese.”

• Supporting cheesemakers

Vermont’s largest cheese processor, Cabot, celebrates 100 years next year. Cabot started in 1919, when dairy farmers in the Cabot, Vermont, area joined together to process and market butter and milk. Cabot started making cheese in 1930 and today is known for its award-winning Cheddars.

“Cabot played a strong role in helping artisan cheese take off,” Tebbetts says. “They offered technical assistance and all kinds of things behind the scenes to help. They were focused not only on Cabot, but every cheese in Vermont, trying to raise the level of quality cheeses in Vermont.”

The Vermont Cheese Council formed in 1996 with the purpose to promote and advance the quality of cheesemaking in the state through education for its members as well as the general public. Currently the council has 52 members, 32 of which are farmstead cheesemakers.

The Vermont Cheese Council hosts educational programming open to both members and non-members, exploring issues such as cheese quality and food safety. It also offers members tuition reimbursement up to $750 to attend programs anywhere in the world and helps cover the cost of competition entries for first-time cheesemakers. The council is supported through non-government grants as well as the annual Vermont Cheesemakers Festival.

“The primary purpose of the cheese council originally was to make sure everyone was making safe, nutritious, wholesome cheese,” Bivens says. “The best way to do that was to create a council so folks had somewhere to go, a chance for peer development and to review their work.”

Maintaining high-quality cheese is especially important, Bivens notes, since people tend to lump cheese in the state together as “Vermont cheese.” He adds that the small scale of the state also allows for a collaborative atmosphere.

“People frequently are more than happy to help new cheesemakers, or even established cheesemakers, to become better businesspeople or better practitioners of their craft,” he says. “It’s that way throughout the ag industry. We’re such a small state, you can’t afford to disregard the expertise of someone who’s been there and done what you’re doing.”

Vermont’s cheese and dairy industry receives promotional support from the farmer-funded Vermont Dairy Promotion Council. The state’s economic development team also helps processors distribute their products outside of Vermont and internationally. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets also assists processors with regulation and compliance issues.

“When we bring on new cheesemakers,who need to know how to comply with regulations for making dairy products, our team makes sure they don’t just handle a stack of papers, and walk away,” Tebbetts says. “People in our dairy division work with them step by step.

They come back to help, do what it takes so they can make cheese and sell it. We want to make sure we provide the technical assistance as well as make sure the product is safe.”

• Maturing businesses

As milk prices remain low and fluid milk consumption continues to decline, Tebbetts says he sees value-added dairy products as a bright spot and growing trend in Vermont.

“I think it will continue to grow, bit by bit, whether cheese, yogurt or other products,” he says. “Our entrepreneurs and cheesemakers always are developing new products. They can compete on a national and international stage now, and are winning big prizes on the national and international stage. It brings more support to emerging companies coming along.”

Bivens says more and more of Vermont’s cheesemakers now are focusing on original recipes and new ways of presenting a wider variety of classically-inspired cheeses.

“A lot of our older cheesemakers started out with Cheddar — that was one of the founding quality cheeses made in Vermont,” Bivens says. “In the last 20 years, we’ve really seen cheesemakers working to develop other types of cheeses, and cheese made from types of milk other than cow ... sheep and goat are 5 percent of what’s produced in the state now.”

Vermont Creamery, Websterville, Vermont, was founded by Allison Hooper and Bob Reese in 1984 and was one of the first commercial goat’s milk cheese companies in the United States. It also was the first licensed goat dairy operation in Vermont. It started out making Fresh Chevre and today offers about 16 different products, including fresh and cheeses from goat’s and cow’s milks as well as products like butter and crème fraîche.

In 2014, Vermont Creamery started Ayers Brook Goat Dairy to demonstrate sustainability in dairy goat farming and help new goat’s milk producers see a model of how to run a successful operation. The farm now is run independently by the Hooper family since Vermont Creamery was acquired by Land O’Lakes last March.

While Vermont Creamery started as a farmstead operation with 60 goats, today it sources its goat’s milk from 14 farms in Vermont, three farms in Quebec and 12 farms in Ontario. Vermont Creamery also partners with Vermont-based St. Alban’s Cooperative for its cow’s milk supply.

Bivens notes a growth trend in Vermont, as a number of cheesemakers are moving from small-scale to medium-scale, and medium-scale cheesemakers are becoming large.

“They’re looking for new markets to sell their cheese,” he says. “As folks learn more about distribution and marketing, we will see the reach of Vermont cheesemaking getting much further out than the Atlantic seaboard.”

Tebbetts points to Jasper Hill Farm, Greensboro, Vermont, as an example of a small artisan cheesemaker that has quickly grown in reach and reputation over the past decade. The company is known for its aging cellars where it matures its own cheeses as well as cheeses from other companies.

“Ten years ago they were going door to door, store to store, selling cheese, and now they’re recognized as a top player,” Tebbetts says. “Young families got together, had an idea and continued to work their tails off to produce a high-quality product ... now people come to learn from them.”

Vermont Creamery has grown over the past decade as well, and increased from 23 employees 15 years ago to 100 employees today, according to Adeline Druart, Vermont Creamery’s president. The company currently produces 4.5 million pounds of product a year and is planning to break ground at the end of this year on a major expansion that could more than triple its capacity.

“We will accelerate growth of our core product line, and there is a lot of innovation for new products that we’re planning to launch in the next 3-5 years,” Druart says.

As the company expands, Vermont will remain the focus of the business and its products.

“Vermont is very important to our company, to our customer. Consumers associate Vermont with products that are niche, that are really high quality. Products you can trust,” Druart says. “Vermont is certainly core to our business, core to our brand, core to the story of the product we make. I’m very grateful that we get to make cheese in this beautiful state.”

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