Manufacturing facility could mean end of dairy operation

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(Host) Plans are moving forward for a new Grafton Cheese manufacturing facility at the old Retreat Farm on the outskirts of Brattleboro.

The cheese company’s owner Windham Foundation says the plant will buy 15 million pounds of Vermont milk annually.

That’s good news for dairy farmers but not for the Retreat farm’s dairy operation.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Alan Smith surveys the empty barn where for 30 years he milked the Brattleboro Retreat’s 100-cow Holstein herd.

(Smith) “See they’d step up into the stall and (clank) and these would lock into place.”

(Keese) Now all that’s left here is the milking equipment. It was held back from the auction this spring, just in case anything changes in the future.

The future looked secure after the Grafton-based Windham Foundation bought the farm as part of a conservation deal in 2001. With help from local donations and several conservation groups, 400 acres and the landmark farm’s historic buildings were permanently conserved.

(Smith) “So you really can’t change the appearance of these buildings here.”

(Keese) But The Windham Foundation lost money on the dairy and in December it sold the cows. Now it’s getting ready to expand its prize-winning Grafton Cheddar Company on the part of the farm it can develop

(Smith) “This barn here is only ten years old, and that one will be the one that comes down. That’s where the cheese company plans on putting their new factory.”

(Keese) Smith says the new cheese plant is a good thing. It’ll create jobs, promote Vermont farm products to tourists, and expand the market for Vermont milk.

(Smith) “But you know everybody was hoping that it could co-exist with a smaller dairy here where you could see cows out in the pasture and they could show you how they make milk into cheese.”

(Keese) Grafton cheese uses milk from Jersey cows, not Holsteins. Smith was ready to switch to a small Jersey herd.

Brattleboro’s Agriculture Advisory Committee worked with the foundation and the Vermont Land Trust in hopes of making that happen.

(Morse) “But I think it’s really pure economics that a dairy farm wasn’t going to work there. You know, running a dairy farm of 100 cows or less… that’s just very difficult in these times.”

(Keese) Stephan Morse is the Windham Foundation’s executive director. In April he leased the farm’s fields to a 600 cow dairy with farms in Putney and Walpole New Hampshire.

The larger dairy will grow feed crops on the land. So Morse says it will be used for agriculture. The farm’s petting zoo will also remain open.

(Morse) “But there won’t be a major dairy operation as there has been for generations. It’s unfortunate. But it’s really just a sign of our times.”

(Keese) The Vermont Land Trust hasn’t given up hope that the retreat can again be a working farm. Locals still see it as a cornerstone of Brattleboro’s shrinking agricultural community.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

(Host) The Windham Foundation hopes to begin making cheese at the Brattleboro plant early next year.

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