Could Specialty Cheeses Save Dairy Farms?


Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, right, interviews Christophe Hille, left, and Ben Kerrick, consultants at Karen Karp & Partners, when discussing a report on dairy industry marketing before a joint meeting of the House and Senate agriculture committees at the Montpellier Statehouse in February. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Since 2002, Vermont has lost half of its dairy farms.

But one dairy product can be the saving grace of the Vermont industry: premium cheese.

Over the past year, consulting firm Karen Karp and Partners has researched the market challenges and opportunities for Vermont dairy farms. And the company has identified cheese as a hot new opportunity, in large part because Americans are eating so much more of it.

“These cheese retailers love Vermont cheese,” KK&P consultant Ben Kerrick told lawmakers on Wednesday. “They say Vermont cheese is of the highest quality in the United States”

The new report has been requested by lawmakers trying to find a way to spur the revitalization of the Vermont dairy market.

In a joint hearing last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee heard about the impact of five years of low prices on Vermont’s dairy industry . Farmers are struggling to follow agency regulations and there is a decline in academic research that is driving innovation in the dairy market, KK&P research shows.

Blocks of Eligo, a blend of goat and cow’s milk, age in the cellars of Jasper Hill Farm, a Greensboro cheese factory, in October. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

While specialty cheese may be the answer for the state’s dairy farmers, Vermont is not at the top of cheese sales, Kerrick said. He recommended that Vermont cheese producers reinvent their brands. The fact that a cheese comes from Vermont is not enough to entice consumers to buy a premium product.

“The cheese brands that sell well in the New York and Boston markets sell well because… they have interesting stories,” Kerrick said. “When someone walks into an upscale Manhattan cheese store… they’re not looking for Vermont cheeses, but Jasper Hill history. They are researching the story of Spring Brook. And these stories really resonate.

Millennials and Gen Z shoppers, who make up a larger portion of the U.S. consumer base, are also looking for food products that deliver an experience.

“It’s often said that food is the new rock,” KK&P consultant Christophe Hille told lawmakers. He suggested that dairy farms could attract customers by offering tourism experiences on their farms.

Kerrick said consumers are more inclined to buy more expensive dairy products that promote more natural ingredients.

Senator Bobby Starr, D-Essex / Orléans, speaks during the discussion of a report on the marketing of the dairy industry before a joint meeting of the House and Senate agriculture committees at the Statehouse in Montpellier February 26. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Senator Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, said it was “exciting” to hear that Vermont could expand the premium cheese market.

Starr supports a “price order” on certain dairy products. A price order is a fixed amount for which dairy products can be bought and sold, depending on other market factors. The price would likely be set by a state commission, similar to The Maine System, which Starr pointed to as a potential model for Vermont.

“So anybody can make money,” Starr said, “but nobody would get it all or make any of it.”

Representative John O’Brien, D-Tunbridge, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said it was unrealistic to think that many of the Vermont dairy farms the state has lost could be brought back.

“Everyone has become so good at producing milk,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien, a sheep farmer, is more focused on preserving the small farms still left in the state. He plans to introduce legislation that would make it easier for small dairy businesses in Vermont to compete with big brands in grocery stores. Placing local produce on the same shelf level as Hershey dairy could make a big difference, he said.

Cows in their barn at the Goodrich family farm in Salisbury. Seen on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Correction: The names of Christophe Hille and Ben Kerrick were misspelled in a previous version of this article.

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