There’s a bounty of new butter makers in Vermont
Written onMay 26 , 2016
What would we do without butter? It’s the magical element that makes croissants possible. Smeared onto dark, German-style bread, it creates a snack hearty enough to power a lumberjack through a busy afternoon. Browned, it brings a nutty richness to sweet and savory foods alike. Not to mention its role as a cooking medium. Butter is delicious and versatile.
And for those of us privileged enough to live in a place with far-reaching food access and a large number of dairy operations, we now have the option of choosing among a wide selection of butters, each one different from the next in some large or small way.
As the selection has gotten more diverse, the gap in price has also widened. At City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, for instance, butters abound. For basics —the classic four wrapped sticks in a box—there’s Cabot for $4.79 a pound and Organic Valley’s version for $6.99 a pound.
Cultured butter is a different beast. Churned from cream that’s been inoculated with lactic bacteria and fermented into crème fraîche, it is slightly more complex and flavorful. The live cultures arguably make it healthier, too. Organic Valley’s cultured version is $9.38 a pound. Vermont Creamery’s is $9.78 a pound, and the newer Ploughgate Creamery cultured butter sells for $13.98 a pound, as does the one from Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh.
And then there’s one offering that costs even more than that. Packaged in mint-green foil with a handsome label that boasts “100 percent grassfed,” the butter from Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge rings in at $19.96 per pound.
Unwrapped, even in early spring, Mountain Home’s very lightly salted butter is several shades more golden than any of its competitors. That’s because the farm’s seven Guernsey and Guernsey-Jersey cows are 100 percent grass fed, rotated through 70 acres of pasture in the summer, and in the winter given the farm’s own hay, with no supplemental grain or silage.
This feeding regimen makes for a high level of carotene in the milk, which translates into the butter’s bright hue. A diet of grass also leads to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, and vitamin K in both meat and milk, which is why it’s touted as a healthier alternative to products made from grain-fed animals.
We have “complete control over the process,” explains Lindsay Harris, who co-owns Mountain Home with Evan Reiss. “Butter is the result of our passion for trying to do something that’s not destructive … as a tool for healing the land on all kinds of levels.”
Each week, Mountain Home produces around 40 pounds of butter, 150 pounds of ricotta, and 20 to 25 gallons of buttermilk, which are sold mainly at specialty food stores, co-ops, and farm stores throughout New England and in New York.
Although the ricotta and buttermilk are priced competitively, Lindsay admits that the butter is on the pricey side, which is reflective of the work and care that is taken to produce it, the quality of the product, and the economies of scale that are unavailable to businesses of her size.
“We probably pay five times more for containers than Cabot does,” she guesses. From paper towels to sea salt to labels, small producers shell out a higher unit price for nearly everything, and those costs are folded into the costs of their products. Plus, cows fed solely on grass simply produce less milk than cows that also receive grain.
The way Lindsay sees it, when food is produced in ways that sap resources, it might cost less in dollars, but the true costs of production are externalized as environmental damage, low wages for farm workers, and less healthy herds.
Enough people agree with her that, she recalls, they were “begging [her] to make butter.” Now in their second year, “we’re growing a loyal following.” And the “gushy emails” Lindsay receives from customers who haven’t tasted butter like hers since they visited Europe, or since they were children making their own with cream from the family cow, “are just so gratifying.”
Mountain Home’s operation is somewhat similar to the one at Animal Farm in Orwell. There, for more than a decade, Diane St. Clair has been hand-making small batches of farmstead butter—approximately 100 pounds a week—that she sells primarily out of state to some of the country’s finest chefs: Thomas Keller, Barbara Lynch, and Patrick O’Connell. Her cows, like Mountain Home’s, are grass fed.
By her own admission, Diane’s butter is too expensive for local restaurants to consider, although they—as well as regular shoppers—do have access to her reasonably priced buttermilk. The thick, flavorful liquid is a tangy and refreshing stand-alone drink, but unbeknownst to most contemporary consumers, buttermilk can also be swapped for other dairy products in a wide variety of recipes.
In 2013, Diane published The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from a Small Vermont Dairy Farm. The recipes, such as Buttermilk and Shrimp Soup and Old-Fashioned Spicy Gingerbread, offer simple and creative ways to incorporate buttermilk into cooking.
When Diane started, in 2000, she was selling her butter at the Middlebury Co-op for $6 per lb. Now, it brings in closer to $23 per lb. “There were no [artisan] butter producers when I started,” she recalls. “There were cheese producers, but butter was just a commodity.” But when, like Diane, you scoop the cream from the milk with a ladle and wash the butter by hand, commodity pricing isn’t going to cut it.
Between buttermilk sales and her restaurant accounts, Diane says her model is viable and sustainable, and suggests that Vermont has more room for artisan butter makers, although the market isn’t infinite. “We’ll hit a wall at some point,” she says. “There are only so many people who can afford $20-a-pound butter.”
She hopes that entrepreneurial farmers won’t stop there: “There’s still ground to break in terms of small-batch dairy products,” she suggests, referring to things like cottage cheese, which she describes as often poorly made and “pasty tasting.” Cheese forged the way, but there are still a lot of dairy products that need to come into the fold.”
Marisa Mauro, the 31-year-old owner of Ploughgate Creamery, was living in Albany and making fine artisan cheese when a fire destroyed her facility. Through the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program, she was able to purchase the Bragg Farm in Fayston, which boasts a stunning mountain view, a sturdy barn, and 50 acres of pasture that, Marisa notes, “needs some loving.”
Although making cheese had been part of her life since she was 14, she says, “I felt the market was a little saturated. I couldn’t think of another cheese to make.” But there wasn’t an abundance of local butter. So Marisa originally planned for her own herd of 15 to 20 milkers, intending to make a farmstead product much like Mountain Home’s and Animal Farm’s.
But after constructing a dairy-processing facility robust enough to sustain the butter business’s growth for years to come—a project that took longer than planned and ended up over budget—there wasn’t enough money left over to build a herd. So she adapted, and in doing so, realized that she could help support some of Vermont’s existing dairy producers.
Marisa began sourcing cream from St. Albans Cooperative—which aggregates milk from 400 conventional dairy farms—and now weekly churns out 200 pounds of sea-salted, cultured butter that is rolled by hand and wrapped in fetching brown-paper packages. Like Mountain Home, she sells to a variety of specialty food stores and co-ops, primarily in New England and New York.
Because she doesn’t yet have her own animals, and thus isn’t tied to a milking schedule, Marisa is able to travel to Boston and New York City to do tastings, meet prospective customers, and make sure that retail businesses are taking the proper care with her products. Recently, she got hooked up with David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in New York City, which is now buying her butter.
In addition to working with the St. Albans Co-op, Marisa is leasing land to the Von Trapp Farmstead, which will be putting heifers on her pasture, thus turning the property into a working farm. In addition, Nathan and Jessie Rogers of Rogers Farmstead, based in Berlin, make their whole-milk yogurt in Ploughgate’s facility. Of the Rogers, Marisa says, “It’s really fun to have them around and to talk about farming. That collaboration inspires more ideas.”
Just a year into production, Ploughgate is still looking to increase sales, but Marisa is also looking to the next phase of her business. Soon, she hopes to add a flavored butter or two, to diversify her offerings. Down the road, when she does have her own cows, she expects she’ll continue to produce her current product and add an artisan offering—made only from her own milk—to the lineup.
Clearly, as with many other items such as coffee, beer, and cheese, butter has joined the realm of things we can make active decisions about, rather than grabbing the only option from the supermarket shelf. Price point plays a major role, but so does flavor, and knowledge about how each product is produced. Given the many roles that butter plays in the kitchen, the best part may be that you don’t have to choose just one.