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Producer of the Month: Commonwealth Dairy PDF Print E-mail

August 2012
by Hannah Aleshnick

Tucked away from major throughways, between native oaks and juvenile Japanese maples, in a complex with Omega Optical, a branch of the Austine School, and a residential community, Commonwealth Dairy is subtle and unassuming. Its LEED-compliant facility emits modernity from every pore – clear, open corridors connecting pressurized rooms with clean stainless steel vats and piping, and everything pneumatically controlled by neon computer screens every step of the way: the temperature of the raw milk; the pH of the product during fermentation; and the balance of cream, whey, and milk protein in the vat.

The Commonwealth Dairy yogurt-production facility has been in operation for just over a year, and the Brattleboro Food Co-op was its first customer. It currently employs one hundred locals and specialists from abroad, and focuses mainly on the quality of the product and partnerships with local dairy farms. Commonwealth processes 100 to 120 million pounds of raw milk every year, most of which comes right from the immediate tri-state region. “We get some milk from as far away as northern Vermont, and a limited amount comes from New York” says co-founder Ben Johnson. “But most of it travels less than that.” Besides keeping the dollars local, Johnson says, it’s more efficient for their distributors. It simply makes more economical sense for companies like Agri-Mark and Cabot to focus on minimizing the transportation of milk from the farm to the processing facilities. Lucky for those of us who are local-conscious!
From the truck, raw milk enters an almost entirely closed system at Commonwealth. The milk is first introduced to the blending room, where the proper balance of milk fat and protein is achieved. Most of the cream removed is delivered right back to Cabot and is made into butter. After pasteurization and homogenization, culture is added by hand—the only time the closed system is breached—and the probiotics get to work. The milk rests in a fermentation vat for six to eight hours, with temperature, pH, and other important factors closely monitored. Then the whey is removed. Whey is fabulous animal feed, and whey from a yogurt facility has the extra advantage of being laced with the same probiotics we find so healthful for our own digestive systems. Currently, about 25 percent of Commonwealth’s whey by-product is recycled to local farmers for pig and cattle feed. It’s nice to know that the “waste” from your favorite breakfast protein boosts the health of local animals—possibly the same animals that produced the milk for your yogurt in the first place! “It’s expensive for us to ship the whey away to have it processed in a biodigester,” says Johnson, so there is plenty of incentive to continue finding local bovines and porcines in need of some intestinal flora.
Once the yogurt is fermented and the whey and water is extracted, the finished yogurt is filled into the container. Because Commonwealth is committed to keeping preservatives out of their products, special care is taken to ensure no foreign material resides in the cup prior to sealing. A splash of hydrogen peroxide and a brief steam rinse before the yogurt fills the container, then a dash of ultraviolet light before the foil lid seals the fresh, clean product within. Some cups receive a squirt of fruit before the yogurt is dropped in; some are lucky enough to get a taste of Vermont maple syrup to complement the subtle, sour goodness of Greek yogurt.
Greek yogurt is “the thing” right now, says Johnson. Actually, yogurt in general is a growing trend: Europeans eat about six times as much yogurt as we do, and we tend to follow their patterns of innovation. Commonwealth, like its partner company in Germany, holds itself to the highest standards of product testing, and has a biological lab right on site.
“We return a portion of net profits directly to local dairy farmers and pay our farmers a premium for rBST-free milk and low somatic cell counts (an indicator of herd health),” Commonwealth says on their website.  They also donate thousands of pounds of product yearly to the Vermont Foodbank, and help keep your dollars local and our local livestock healthy. And their plain, maple, or fruit yogurt is just a lovely complement to your breakfast French Roast or Earl Grey. Don’t forget to recycle the container!
Come visit the folks from Commonwealth Dairy at the Co-op on Friday, August 10 from 11 am to 2 pm, and try some of their delicious yogurt!