Milk company deals locally, directly with farmers

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(Host) The Vermont Milk Company is completing its first year in business.

The small processing plant is finding its niche by practicing fair trade’ and selling its brand of cheese, yogurt and ice cream to the local market.

The company’s mission is to provide a good price for milk by dealing locally and directly with the farmer.

VPR’s Amy Noyes reports:

(Noyes) It’s another busy day at Vermont Milk Company, in the Northeast Kingdom town of Hardwick.

(Burmeister) "Beyond this wall

(Sound of door opening to loud factory sounds)

today, we’re making mozzarella cheese curd, and over here you can see about a thousand pounds of it being made."

(Noyes) Peter Burmeister is Chief Operating Officer of Vermont Milk Company. He points to a large stainless steel vat where liquid whey is being siphoned off, leaving the white nugget-like curds of cheese:

(Bubbling sounds)

(Burmeister) "The whey bubbling away."

(Noyes) What’s left are the curds, which Vermont Milk Company sells to a specialty cheese maker in Bennington.

(Burmeister) "It looks kind of like popcorn. Curds and whey, like Little Miss Muffet."

(Noyes) The equipment at Vermont Milk Company is shiny and new. Most of it is made in Europe, where small-scale dairy processing plants are commonplace. Burmeister says most American dairy plants are big operations that pool large amounts of milk from across a region, such as the Northeastern U.S.

All of the milk here comes from Northeast Kingdom farmers. While the products are not certified organic, Burmeister ranks local as a top priority.

(Burmeister) "Our milk is local. We know the farmers. We know what the cows have been eating. We know how clean the facilities are, what the farmers are doing with their cows, and we like that. So we say local trumps organic."

(Noyes) Burmeister says the company chose to start working with non-organic farmers because organic producers already draw a fair price for their milk. Treating farmers fairly is the premise behind Vermont Milk Company.

The company promises to pay farmers no less than $15 per hundredweight, which works out to $1.29 per gallon. With milk prices currently high, the company is now paying even more. Burmeister says there are no deductions from that price, such as the common practice of charging farmers to truck milk from the farm to the plant.

(Burmeister) "No gimmicks. If we say $15 they get a check for $15, period – nothing taken out."

(Noyes) Vermont farmers started the company with the help of Anthony Pollina, an activist on farm issues who serves as spokesperson for the small corporation:

(Pollina) "We really see this as a fair trade dairy company. You know, we buy milk from local farmers, we add value to commodity milk, which is generally sold at a low price. We are putting more money back in farmers’ pockets. And we are letting consumers know that when they buy from us their money is staying local. And we see it as fair trade."

(Noyes) Pollina originally got involved by helping farmers organize to fight for higher milk checks. When negotiating with processors didn’t work, he lined up investors to help purchase the dairy processing plant.

(Pollina) "And it was actually a pretty amazing process. You always say one thing leads to another but I don’t think any of us ever thought when we started organizing to talk about milk prices that we were going to end up owning a dairy processing plant. But it’s been really gratifying."

(Noyes) Today, Vermont Milk Company produces private label products and its own brand of cheese, yogurt, and – just recently- ice cream.

It may still be in its infancy, but the company is growing at break-neck speed.

Anthony Pollina says they are constantly adding new equipment to keep up with demand.

(Pollina) "We’ve grown from producing two vats of cheese a week, six or seven months ago, to a week like this current week where we’re going to make 13 vats of cheese, 1300 gallons of ice cream, a bunch of yogurts and ricotta cheese and some blocks of cheddar cheese as well. So, while we’re small, we’re really growing fast."

(Noyes) In the future, Vermont Milk Company hopes it will grow big enough to influence the way other dairies pay farmers for their milk.

For VPR News, I’m Amy Noyes, in Hardwick.

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