We’re thrilled to shine our Member Deals Spotlight on one of the newest additions to our local cheese lineup – Barn First Creamery! All of their creamy, delicious, award-winning goat cheeses are 20% off for member-owners from December 24th – 30th, so it’s a perfect time to pick up a special cheese or two to help ring in the New Year. Read on to learn more about the roots of this northern Vermont farm and the people (and goats!) who make the magic happen:
When Rebecca Velazquez and Merlin Backus decided to leave NYC for a more rural life, they had no idea of the adventure they were about to embark upon. In 2013, after a few years of searching for a spot to drop new roots, they made the decision to return to Merlin’s hometown of Westfield, Vermont, where a parcel of land adjacent to Merlin’s family home had become available. The property sale happened to include a barn… hence the name Barn First!
Once the couple settled in Westfield, Rebecca set out to find work. She had a deep love of cheese, so Merlin’s father Dan thought it made perfect sense to connect her with fellow community member and award-winning goat cheesemaker Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm. Dan knew Laini well, as local connections tend to run deep in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. In fact, before Laini started her own goat farm, she’d worked with Dan as a logger and hog castrator. So Rebecca went to work for Laini, learning the ropes of goat husbandry, land management, and cheese care. Though Rebecca regularly turns to Laini with goat health care issues, she is quick to stress that she never asked Laini for cheesemaking tips or recipes, wanting to respect the relationship between the two of them, and Laini’s thirty-year legacy of goat cheese making.
While Rebecca was working for Lazy Lady Farm, she and Merlin got to work building a barn of their own and bought two old goats from Laini to begin their own fledgling herd. They hand-milked seven goats from 2013-2016 before their barn, milking parlor, and cheese room were up and running. Eventually, they picked up a few more goats from another esteemed Vermont goat dairy – Twig Farm. The Barn First herd now consists of just under 50 does, milked to produce pasteurized bottled goat milk, as well as seven types of award-winning aged goat cheeses. All of the goats are pastured when the weather allows, and their milk tastes like the fields and woods of Westfield, Vermont. The goats are milked seasonally, with a resting period every winter when the animals get ready for kidding in March. In a recent NFCA Cave to Co-op feature on Barn First Creamery, the author points out that “Rebecca and Merlin might be Laini’s protégées but they have their own distinct style, making cheeses that complement each other and can appear on a cheese board together.” The poetic names for each of their cheeses come from the maiden names of Rebecca and Merlin’s family trees.
Here a the Co-op, you can find Barn First Creamery’s bottled goat milk, along with four of their fantastic cheeses, including Breiba, Urdang, Quinby, and Malloy (the reigning 1st place champion at the prestigious American Cheese Society Awards!). Try them all and let us know your favorite!
We’re so fortunate here in Vermont to be home to some of the finest cheesemakers in the world. Vermont cheesemakers set records in 2019, collectively taking home an astounding 44 ribbons at the prestigious American Cheese Society’s 36th Annual Awards competition in Richmond, Virginia. The 2019 World Cheese Awards hosted by The Guild of Fine Food in the UK saw 7 Vermont cheesemakers take home awards, including 2 gold medals. The Vermont Cheese Council lists 53 cheesemakers in our state, 8 of which are located in Addison County. According to Vermont Cheese Council Executive Director, Tom Bivins, “The importance of the dairy and cheese industry to Vermont agriculture is significant socially and culturally, as well as enhancing our sense of place and supporting agriculture economies in their communities.”
For years, Vermont’s artisanal cheeses have been a rare bright spot in an otherwise ailing dairy landscape, but as VPR reported in April, Vermont’s specialty cheesemakers are taking an extra hard hit during the pandemic. With the mandatory closure of restaurants and institutions across the state and the fact that many consumers are needing to significantly trim their food budgets, sales for Vermont’s specialty cheese producers dropped 50-70% almost overnight. Adding to the crisis is the fact that these farmers and cheesemakers were ineligible for the emergency relief loans made available to most other small businesses in the initial $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. They were able to qualify for the payroll protection program made available in the second tier of the relief package, though it remains to be seen if this will be sufficient to prevent a significant decline in the number of specialty cheese producers in Vermont.
Of course, the cows and goats must still be milked, so many of Vermont’s resilient cheesemakers quickly shifted their business models to include direct-to-consumer sales through online platforms, roadside farm stands, and by partnering with other local farms to be included in community-supported agriculture (CSA) packages. The Vermont Cheese Council stepped in to help provide a way for cheesemakers to keep moving cheese our of their aging spaces by creating an Online Sales Directory and the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN-VT) created an online farmers market, to help connect shoppers with cheesemakers from Blue Ledge Farm, Bridport Creamery, Champlain Valley Creamery, Fairy Tale Farm, and Ice House Farm.
Since 1939, June has been designated as Dairy Month, so what better way to celebrate than by stocking up on some of your favorite local cheeses? Perhaps you have a graduation to celebrate, a socially-distanced barbecue with friends, or you simply want to treat yourself to that perfect wedge of your favorite cheese. Your local cheesemakers will certainly appreciate your support.
Our Member Deals Spotlight shines brightly this week on Grafton Village Cheese. All of their local, award-winning cheeses are 20% off for member-owners from February 6th – 12th, so it’s a perfect time to stock up on your favorites. Read on to learn more about this unique mission-driven creamery with a rich local history:
The Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company was originally founded in 1892 by dairy farmers who gathered together in a cooperative to make their surplus raw milk into cheese. In the days before refrigeration, there were many such cooperatives in the rural agricultural communities of Vermont and an abundance of fresh, creamy milk was turned into a food that could be stored for a longer period of time. A devastating fire destroyed the original factory in 1912, pressing a decades-long pause on the cheesemaking operation. Thankfully, in the mid-1960s the nonprofit Windham Foundation restored the company in an effort to breathe new life into Grafton’s agricultural economy. Their traditions have endured over the years and they remain committed to making their cheese by hand using premium raw milk from small, local family farms.
Cheese on a Mission
Grafton Village Cheese remains a mission-driven Windham Foundation-owned enterprise, supporting Vermont’s rural communities through grants, programs, and social enterprises. When you purchase Grafton Village Cheese, you’re not only supporting the local family farms that produce the milk and the 60 plus employees at Grafton cheese, but you’re also supporting educational initiatives like the Kindle Farm School, dedicated to serving students with a variety of emotional, behavioral, neurological and learning needs; you’re supporting grants that fuel farm to school efforts by Food Connects; and you’re supporting the preservation of a historic homestead owned by Alec Turner, who was an escaped slave who settled in Grafton in 1872, as part of Vermont’s African Ameican Heritage Trail. Now that’s cheese on a mission!
In addition to their production facility in Grafton, the Foundation operates a manufacturing plant and cheese store in Brattleboro, Vermont, where visitors can watch the cheddar being made and sample a wide variety of Vermont cheeses. If you’re traveling through the Brattleboro area, this is a must-see!
We’re shining our Member Deals Spotlight on Vermont Creamery this week and offering member-owners a 20% discount on their full line of delicious dairy products from December 14th – 20th. They recently shared some big news with the community, and perhaps you’ve already heard about it, but we wanted to share the full scoop from one of their founders, Allison Hooper. Below you will find Allison’s post from their creamery blog:
With Gratitude for a Bright Future
On March 19th, Bob and I announced to our employees that we are selling our company to Land O’Lakes, the successful farmer-owned cooperative headquartered in Arden Hills, MN. After several years of searching for the right partner, we are thrilled to share this news. We are filled with a myriad of emotions: Delight that we have found a great partner. Elation that our baby Vermont Creamery is a great catch and a good fit for America’s iconic butter-maker. Nostalgia for those naïve twenty-something-year-olds starting an improbable enterprise. Energized to slow down and be present for our families. Relief that we’re leaving behind the stress of owning a business that isn’t so little anymore. Excitement that the future for Vermont Creamery and our team is bright and filled with opportunity.
Why sell now?
Bob and I are entrepreneurs. 34 years ago, back in 1984, we saw something in the future that others didn’t see. We asked: ”Why not make and sell hand-made cheeses from cows and goats milk?” We were undaunted and refreshingly optimistic. In our twenties, the risk seemed minimal as we cobbled together our $2,400 investment to make cheese in an outbuilding on a goat farm. Bob’s penchant for numbers and my intuition that Americans might eat goat cheese and crème fraiche (if they were really hungry!) fueled our passion and drive to succeed. Over the course of 34 years, we developed some scrumptious cheeses and enough customers to flourish as a business. We had just enough grit to clear the big hurdles of making a tasty cheese, keeping cash in the bank and earning a commendable trusting reputation with our customers. Who knew that this little company and America’s appetite for artisanal cheese would blossom as it has?
Today, we have a thriving and promising enterprise. Vermont Creamery cheeses and butters are sold in every state. Daily, we manage ten distinct cheesemaking technologies. Between the creamery and the farm, we employ over 105 people. We buy milk from 14 Vermont producers, 4 in Quebec and 12 in Ontario. We have accomplished a whole lot more than what we set out to do. Here is what makes Bob and I really proud:
We make amazing chèvres, crème fraîche, mascarpone, cultured butters, and geotricum rinded goats’ and cows’ milk cheeses;
We’ve stimulated a company culture that embraces transparent open-book management and rewards innovation;
Through solar energy investments on our dairy barn and improvements at the Creamery, we are hacking away at our carbon footprint;
Our B Corp certification requires commitment to higher environmental goals, less waste, and more sharing of our surpluses;
Through initiatives like the Vermont Cheese Festival and Cheese Council, we collaboratively lift all boats;
By building what we hope will become a model, transparent, environmentally conscious and sustainable goat dairy, we connect our working landscape to the good food we serve up;
Bob and I built a business partnership that has endured three decades of mistakes, triumphs, raising thoughtful children, and creating solid financial results;
We’ve personally mentored the next generation of Vermont Creamery; boy is their future bright!
Bob and I have had a good run and we know it is time for us to turn over the reigns to a team of terrific managers who have the skills to build upon what we have created. We have been intentional in hiring and developing talent at Vermont Creamery. We have already transitioned our day-to-day management to Adeline Druart, our 14- year French “intern” who came to America to learn to speak English. We promoted her to President nearly 2 years ago. Our leadership team is ready and eager for the opportunities of transition. They have a plan and a clear vision on where they will take Vermont Creamery. Equipped with the resources and expertise of Land O’Lakes, there is nothing they cannot achieve.
Bob and I do not plan to leave Vermont Creamery just yet. We will continue to attend industry events and speak on behalf of the Creamery. We have an inspiring story and love telling it. We will advise the management team through the transition. Most importantly, we will carve out the time to be students of life beyond cheese. There is a lot we’ve yet to explore and our spouses couldn’t be more excited for us to re-join them in the civilian world. Bob and I are both grandparents now, we are eager to spend more of our days at home in Vermont and less of them in distant airports promoting the cheese business.
Our work with cheese is not done. The Hooper Family will retain Ayers Brook Goat Dairy as it shoulders its way to sustainability. Our family is eager to help Miles and Daryll (Allison’s son and daughter-in-law) succeed on the farm. The Hoopers will call on Bob often for his financial counsel. We know that Vermont Creamery customers will still delight in visiting the farm. We look forward to seeing you there. Rolling up our sleeves to connect farmers with land and goats to milk is unfinished Vermont business that needs our attention.
Why Land O’Lakes?
We examined many options for fit and funding the future of Vermont Creamery. Land O’Lakes came with unprecedented enthusiasm. As the iconic company that made the butter which was in my family fridge growing up, Land O’Lakes has the know-how and resources to help Vermont Creamery realize our vision. For Land O’Lakes, they simply love what we do, our products, our leadership team, and our brand promise. And we are thrilled by Land O’Lakes’ desire to take our improbably successful family business to the next level.
Vermonters and our customers all around may feel a sense of uneasiness when a local brand sells to a larger company. We appreciate that sentiment and how this exceptional Vermont community has cheered for and supported us. We trade on the beauty of our landscape, the thoughtfulness of our Vermont practicality, our varied agriculture, and championing of humane causes. Land O’Lakes recognizes these values, shares them deeply and plans to invest significantly in the Creamery in Websterville, Vermont. The management team and all employees have been asked to stay on. Increased wages and improved benefits are scheduled and we intend to hire more production workers.
Land O’Lakes is dedicated to developing a local supply of goats’ milk. About 20 years ago, Bob and I each took short consulting stints to work for Land O’Lakes’ International Division. Our contracts brought cheesemaking, marketing, and business expertise to Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the West Bank and Bulgaria. We are familiar with Land O’Lakes’ values and effectiveness; they understand the sensitivity required in meeting a community where it is and finding synergy to realize a common vision. Bob and I were pleased to be sought out by the Land O’Lakes International Division then and look forward to similar opportunities for Vermont Creamery staff seeking this kind of growth experience.
Of all the emotions we’re feeling, gratitude is tops. We are grateful for the friends, fulfillment, and independence that our careers in cheese and farming have bestowed. We are grateful for the customers, new and old, who invigorated our drive to be the best. We are grateful for our conscientious employees who have made this business feel like family. We are grateful for raising six children (three sons each) in a family business that started from scratch. They know about hard work, their privilege, and responsibility to make the world better. We are grateful for our loving spouses, Don and Sandy, who have coached and supported us through this transition. We are grateful, that the future for the business and community we have built has never looked brighter.
Currently, 20 percent (or about 200 Vermont dairies) are organic, up from just 33 in 1998. This increase in organic dairy production in Vermont is something to celebrate, since organic dairy products have been shown to have many nutritional and environmental benefits. Nutritionally, organic milk from grass fed cows has been shown to be higher in CLA (an antioxidant) and ALA (an Omega 3 fatty acid). For years, dairy got a bad rap for being high in fat, though now we’re beginning to understand that there are many benefits to consuming healthy fats.
From an environmental perspective, organic dairy production offers improved water quality due to decreased pollution from agricultural runoff (a cleaner Lake Champlain!); decreased soil erosion and increased soil fertility; decreased antibiotic use; and improved animal health and welfare. Additionally, organic dairy farming offers our state an economic boost. According to a report from the University of Vermont from 2012, Vermont’s organic dairy farms contributed $76 million to the state’s economy, supported over 1,000 jobs, and offered a better return on investment for farmers. Now let’s celebrate that with a big ‘ol scoop of ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery, or a pint of famous Maple Milk from Kimball Brook Farm!