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Milk company finds its whey

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted November 17, 2006

For Chantale Nadeau, getting a better price for the milk she produces on her 600-acre farm in Holland is not just good economics for her and her family.

“Paying a fair price for milk doesn’t just help the farmer, it also helps the community at large,” said Nadeau. “We keep the landscape working; we keep it in production. When we talk about the number of farms that are part of the Vermont Milk Company, I think it’s also important to step back and think about how many acres of land we’re keeping open and working.”

Nadeau is one of the farmers who recently helped launch the Vermont Milk Company, a farmer-owned company that promises to pay no less than $15 per hundredweight of milk, while farmers pay all shipping costs out of the price they receive for their milk, which can cost farmers as low as 50 cents to a high of $1 per hundredweight.

Nadeau said her farm’s most recent milk check on Nov. 10 from the St. Albans Cooperative that was about $13 per hundredweight, which was up from about $11 six weeks ago.

For more than three years, a handful of farmers and supporters have tried to find a way to get farmers a fairer price for their milk, and to give them more leverage in the market.

It first started with an attempt by some farmers to form a union. So, they approached Anthony Pollina, and others, to see if was possible. It’s not, as federal law prohibits farmers from forming unions.

So, they embarked on a journey to either build, or refurbish, a dairy processing plant of their own.

On Nov. 11, the company announced its first major contract. The contract is with Maplebrook Farms, an artisan cheesemaker in Bennington.

The contract is valued in the “six figure” range, said Peter Burmeister, the chief operating officer of the Vermont Milk Company. Currently, the farm is using 33,000 pounds of milk a week for its mozzarella, and that is likely to rise to 150,000 pounds a week during the summertime when the tomatoes ripen and demand for fresh mozzarella is higher.

Given Vermont’s new, stricter labeling law that has forced many producers to re-label their product, Maplebrook’s partnership with the Vermont Milk Company has allowed them to change their labels, too. Before sourcing their curds from the Vermont Milk Company, they were shipping in curds from Wisconsin.

“We were able to immediately change our label to say ‘made in Vermont,’” said Mike Scheps, of Maplebrook Farm. “And, we were also able to say on our cheese that buying this product helps the family farmer of Vermont. That helps us out as well.”

Maplebrook also added the Vermont Milk Company name to its label, in an effort to help promote the company, said Johann Englert, also of Maplebrook Farm. Its handmade mozzarella is sold in food coops throughout Vermont, and is sold nationally through Whole Foods, the all-natural food store chain.

More importantly, Scheps travels to the company’s Hardwick processing plant to oversee the curd-making process before the curd travels to Bennington to be hand-shaped and packaged.

Currently, the Vermont Milk Company is taking milk from only a few farms — three or four — said Pollina. The hope is to boost that to five or seven farms within the next few months.

The company is currently making cheddar cheese curds, ricotta cheese, and curd for the hand-stretched mozzarella for Maplebrook Farm, and is also working on its own brand of yogurt to hit retail shelves after the first of the year. The yogurt, a whole milk variety with a hint of vanilla, is already being sold in some restaurants around the state, including the Coffee Corner in downtown Montpelier. The popular eatery is using 10 to 12 pounds a week, said Burmeister.

Pollina and Burmeister said they field calls daily from businesses interested in having the company make products for them. The company is talking with several ice cream companies, some of whom have to purchase ice cream mix from out-of-state, and is looking to make its own butter, mostly for restaurant or bulk use, not retail sale.

The Vermont Milk Company is filling a niche in the state since most of the dairies left are either producing their own brand, or have been bought out by out-of-state conglomerates, like H.P. Hood, or Dean Foods. Booth Brothers, Garelick, and Organic Cow of Vermont are three examples.
In fact, few dairy brands are intact in the Green Mountain State. Monument Farms, Thomas’ Dairy, and Strafford Organic Dairy are the only three Vermont-sourced and bottled milk. Strafford also makes an ice cream, too.

Burmeister says this is where the Vermont Milk Company can help to fill a void left by the buyouts of these smaller dairies by larger food conglomerates. They help other companies in Vermont, and add value to their own products by sourcing in-state dairy products.

The plant has been operating, slowly, since September and the Maplebrook contract allowed the company to purchase the plant, and to slowly ramp up production there. The company has five people working on making the cheese in the Hardwick plant and is operating several days a week.

Pollina said he and others looked at a few places in the Northeast Kingdom and Central Vermont before settling on Hardwick. The company put up $650,000 for the plant, and expects to spend more than $1 million before it gets the plant fully refitted.

Pollina believes that if the Vermont Milk Company is successful in the long run, it can serve as a model for how to create smaller processing plants that divert milk out of the commodity market, where it is likely to be blended with milk from New York and Pennsylvania, and instead add some value to it, keep it in Vermont, and more importantly ensure that the Vermont brand remains intact.

“To me, it’s about empowering farmers and giving them a way to have some power over their milk,” said Pollina. “We starting with a handful of farmers, but if we can become a model for other people, I do think it does have the potential to reshape the dairy industry in Vermont.”