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State of the Industry

Vermont builds on reputation for Cheddar, artisan cheeses

Editor’s note: As part of our “State of the Industry” series we take 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. — For many people, the name “Vermont” brings to mind colorful autumn trees, small villages with New England-style church steeples, fresh maple syrup and other high-quality, specialty foods — including Vermont Cheddar and a number of artisan cheeses.

With a little more than 600,000 people, Vermont is among the least-populated states. But the state’s cheese and dairy population is a different story.

Vermont has 63 dairy processors including both off-farm and on-farm, some of the more prolific being Cabot Creamery owned by Agri-Mark with plants in Cabot and Montpelier, Ben and Jerry’s in Waterbury, Via Cheese in Swanton and Franklin Foods in Enosburg Falls.

“We have some strong processors. Cabot and Ben and Jerry’s are very well-known,” says Diane Bothfeld, dairy policy administrator, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “We have award-winning cheesemakers, many smaller cheesemakers, and a very strong dairy industry.”

As of March Vermont was home to 1,065 cow dairy farms, down from January’s 1,078. In recent years, there has been a slight shift toward larger farms in Vermont, but the majority of the state’s dairy farms still have less than 200 cows. Close to 20 percent or 198 of the farms are certified organic, and Vermont has three main buyers of it organic milk: Organic Valley, Horizon and HP Hood purchasing for Stonyfield Farm.

Vermont produces more milk than its population can consume, but quite a bit of milk moves back and forth across the state’s border. Vermont exports 51 percent of its milk to other states, mostly to southern New England markets such as Boston and Rhode Island.

Bothfeld says there are some concerns about where the state’s milk volume is since so much leaves the market and how much remains for cheese manufacturers and other processors. Milk production numbers also have faltered over the last several years. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Vermont milk production totaled 2.58 billion pounds in 2008, down from 2.64 billion pounds in 2003 and 2.65 billion pounds in 1998.

“We’re not very happy with where milk production is going in the present time, and we would like to strengthen that for sure,” Bothfeld says. “We have a strong industry and want to continue to work to keep it that way.”

Cheese production continues to grow in Vermont, according to the latest available statistics from NASS, from 101.9 million pounds in 1997 to 140.1 million pounds in 2007.

Members of Vermont’s cheese industry readily attribute their success to the state’s high-quality milk.

“There are terrific advantages as to the superior milk quality from farmer owners because of the pristine streams, land and air — it makes for higher yields than most can get,” says Roberta MacDonald, senior vice president of marketing, Cabot Cheese.

“Certainly in dairy, Vermont has a wonderful landscape for growing grass for animals to be grazing and producing milk. It’s a very good ingredient for high-quality cheese production,” says Allison Hooper, co-owner and founder of Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., Websterville, Vt.

The large number of grass-fed and organic dairies in Vermont also helps cheesemakers that specialize in natural and organic cheeses.

“We have a high percentage of organic milk cheesemakers. It helps them market because they can get into natural food stores as well as gourmet outlets,” says Ellen Ogden, author of The Vermont Cheese Book and coordinator for the Vermont Cheese Council. “It’s also the ‘Green Mountain State.’ We have really nice pastures and really nice living conditions for the animals.”

Vermont has a little more than 40 cheesemakers and nearly 200 different types of cheese, Ogden says, adding that these numbers are remarkable for a state of Vermont’s size.

While some in the industry might say the state can’t support any more cheesemakers, Ogden says everyone in Vermont seems to be making a unique brand and different type of cheese. Most of the cheesemakers make varieties of cow’s milk cheeses, but Vermont also is home to several sheep’s and goat’s milk cheesemakers and even one water buffalo milk cheesemaker. Some cheesemakers start as entrepreneurs switching from other professions, while many are dairy farmers who started making cheese as a way to keep the farm alive and profitable.

“Just in the past year we’ve had three new cheesemakers,” Ogden says. “It doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

• The artisans emerge

Vermont has long been a dairy state, but its reputation as a center for specialty and artisan cheese production has mostly emerged in the last two decades.

During the 1980s, Cabot began entering its Cheddar in national competitions, and in 1989 it took first place in the Cheddar category at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wis. MacDonald says Cabot’s “Made in Vermont” position was important as the company grew in the Northeast, and Vermont’s tourism trade also has helped cheese marketing efforts.

“Vermont is important first and foremost as a highly-desirable vacation destination,” MacDonald says. “People sample our Cheddar here and want it when they go home.”

Hooper and Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. co-owner Bob Reese founded the company 25 years ago in 1984 after she returned from France where she lived as a student and gained experience making cheese on farms. At the time Cabot was beginning to build its Cheddar brand and other cheesemakers such as Grafton Village Cheese Co., Grafton, Vt., already had well-established Cheddars.

“For the most part the cheese industry was defined by Vermont Cheddar,” Hooper says. “For us it was an interesting opportunity. We wanted to be in the cheese business, but I didn’t have experience in Cheddar and we would have found it difficult in a marketing landscape as yet another Cheddar.”

Though most Americans were not yet familiar with goat’s milk cheese, crème fraîche and mascarpone, Hooper and Reese began developing and marketing these products, targeting French chefs and small retailers in New York.

Another pioneer in Vermont’s artisan cheese community is David Major, owner of Vermont Shepherd, Putney, Vt. Major started his sheep’s milk cheese business in 1993 and was among the first in the country to produce and market sheep’s milk and cave-aged cheeses.

In 1996, 19 of Vermont’s cheesemakers gathered for the state’s first cheesemakers’ festival, and a year later the Vermont Cheese Council was founded to give the state’s small cheesemakers a larger voice in the marketplace.

“The whole premise at the time with the Vermont Cheese Council was to brand Vermont cheese, develop a following for Vermont cheese, just as California brands wines from Sonoma,” Hooper says. “Consumers make the connection, if they buy wine from that region, it will be very good. We wanted to do the same with cheese.”

Vermont already had developed a name for specialty foods such as Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Green Mountain Coffee and Cabot Cheese, so the Vermont Cheese Council envisioned extending that name to artisan cheeses.

“There was very high quality manufacturing coming out of Vermont for specialty foods,” Hooper says. “That really was out of necessity. Vermont never is going to be a state that can capitalize on low-cost manufacturing. Inputs are high here, and therefore we’ve always for survival had to position our products on the very high end of the market and really develop artisan production. That is where we sought to continue the industry. We had a niche opportunity there.”

As Vermont’s artisan cheese industry started gaining a following, people who wanted to enter the business came to Vermont to make cheese, and the industry’s infrastructure and collective marketing efforts grew.

• Gaining publicity

The Vermont Cheese Council participates in 16-20 events throughout the state each year, with a mission to educate consumers and chefs about the different cheeses made in Vermont. The group also provides a “Vermont Cheese Trail” map of its members and currently is developing a new map pairing Vermont wines and beers with Vermont cheeses.

“We have a lot of model cheesemakers,” Ogden says. “The Vermont Cheese Trail is a wonderful way for consumers to learn about the cheeses and how they are made.”

Another resource for artisan cheesemakers in the state is the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese (VIAC) at the University of Vermont-Burlington.

VIAC, formed in 2004 by food science professors and co-directors Catherine Donnelly and Paul Kindstedt, provides professional training and the latest scientific research for those involved or interested in small-scale and artisan cheesemaking. More than 900 students from 43 states and 8 countries have participated in VIAC’s programming, and about 60 have graduated from its basic certificate program and a handful of those from its advanced program.

“In our fifth year, we’re busier than ever,” says Jody Farnham, administrative and program director, VIAC. “Over the last 18 months we’ve probably tripled our offerings. We’re teaching programs every three weeks, and they’re always oversubscribed.”

The Vermont Cheese Council offers a tuition remission to its membership to help with the costs of programs or certain classes at VIAC. The institute, through the New York public relations company it works with, also helps to give more publicity to Vermont’s artisan cheese industry.

“As long as people see Vermont cheese and eat Vermont cheese, we’re happy,” Farnham says, adding that Vermont’s cheese industry also benefits from the state’s tradition of collaboration in small food communities.

“We’re a very open state, and people are interested in helping and supporting each other,” Farnham says.

The Vermont Cheese Council and VIAC will join Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. Aug. 23 in hosting the 2009 Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival (http://vtcheesefest.com) in Shelburne, Vt. This will be the state’s first cheese festival since the one held in 1996 when Vermont’s artisan cheese movement was just beginning to gain strength.

The impetus for the festival started at the American Cheese Society annual conference held two summers ago in Burlington, Vt.

“The national trade industry liked coming to Vermont because it was small and the cheesemakers were close together,” Hooper says. “The feedback was that Vermont is an interesting state to visit, very beautiful and a real destination. We wanted to hang on to that, keep that interest going.”

The target audience for this event is people who attend similar festivals and Slow Food events, including retail customers, chefs and distributors. In addition to cheesemakers, the festival will include winemakers, brewers, specialty meats, artisan bread, chocolate and other complementary types of specialty food.

Hooper says the Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival will help reinforce the industry’s support of Vermont cheese.

“As much as Vermont is very well-known and celebrated, we have to make sure we stay with the bull and make it easy for customers to have access to us,” Hooper says.

While the cheese maps and festivals keep Vermont’s cheese industry in the limelight, Ogden says the reputation earned by the state’s cheesemakers cuts back on the need for much advertising.

“There is such a demand for Vermont cheese. They don’t need much media, and individual farms get quite a lot of attention,” Ogden says. “A lot of cheesemakers have brought home a lot of awards. We have big ones buying milk from local farms, and we have family farms where this is what they do — produce a very fresh, high quality product.”

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