by Sabine Rhyne
As much as we love cooperation, we all acknowledge that it takes work. The Cobb Hill Cohousing community in Hartland, VT, knows this in spades. This intentional community strives to create a sustainable existence, both physically and socially. Their statement of principles includes the statement: “Sustainability and community both require long-term thinking and a dedication to something larger than our narrowly defined selves.” Founded in the 1990s, the Cobb Hill community began a process which has so far resulted in the purchase of 270 acres of farmland and forest, the completion of a common house and multiple dwellings and farm buildings, and the creation and nurturing of eight or ten enterprises that contribute to the well-being and economic sustainability of the farm. Many of these farm enterprises engage in commerce with retail outlets around the region. That’s where the Brattleboro Food Co-op comes in, as a purveyor of both Cobb Hill Cheese and Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt.
Sophie Starr and Jeannine Kilbride both work in the cheese house, and took time from an incredibly busy schedule to show us around the farm and some of the common areas on a beautiful spring morning. Home to 23 families, the farm centers around the dairy operation. Cobb Hill cheese and frozen yogurt products all support their dairy partners by putting some of that rich Jersey milk to good use. The rest of the fluid milk from the small herd is sold to some 80 CSA families, along with produce grown on land prepared by horses. The other farm enterprises include honey, Icelandic sheep, eggs, maple syrup, and a recent foray into shiitake mushrooms. Some community members also sell books and art.
The community clearly works hard at reducing its environmental impact. The mechanical shed for the barn is powered by photovoltaic cells, and all the housing has solar hot water, composting toilets, a grey water system, and is heated by two wood-fired GARN furnaces. “We used no propane last winter,” Sophie smiled. Working to increase their efficiencies and balance the economic needs of the members of the community with the ideal size of the herd is the current challenge. Cheesemaking happens every other day now. “We can’t really do more,” Sophie says. After the initial working of the milk into cheese—a six-hour process—the cheese must sit overnight on the press. The next day, the wheels are transferred to brine tanks, a process that ultimately creates a natural rind. Caerphilly Four Corners has salt added to the curds, while Ascutney Mountain gets its salt from the brine alone. After a day and a half, the wheels are placed on the racks, where they are carefully wiped and turned every day for three weeks, and then less often as they age. Caerphilly Four Corners is aged four to six months, while Ascutney Mountain is aged for seven to eight months. Though they have recently expanded the cave slightly from some root cellar space next door, the cave is still laden with wheels of Caerphilly Four Corners and Ascutney Mountain cheese in various stages of aging.
Lately Jeannine has taken on the challenge of frozen-yogurt making with the help of her partner Don and a Dutch consultant from Indiana who taught them how to produce frozen yogurt without homogenizing the milk. They pasteurize the milk, slightly reducing the rich Jersey milkfat by adding Organic Valley milk powder. “This is necessary, because the milk is about 8% milkfat out of the cow,” explains Jeannine. “Ultimately, the frozen yogurt has four grams of fat per serving, although the maple has only three grams.” Next they heat the milk and flavorings for a time to activate the stabilizer, and then blast freeze and batch freeze each delicious lot, which they craft into chocolate, maple, vanilla, black currant, peppermint chocolate chip, and coffee flavors. The frozen yogurt enterprise has experienced 85% growth in a year, producing roughly 300 pints a week. Jeannine figures that the production may reach 500 pints, but probably no more. They currently rent space in the Blue Moon Sorbet freezers, and Blue Moon also helps to distribute their product.
The question of reasonable growth always comes up with local producers. Cobb Hill’s dairy enterprises exist to support the dairy-cow partners at the center of the community. Balancing the size of the herd with the capability of the equipment, space, and energy use is a vital question that the community works with regularly. Cobb Hill was part of the vision of the late Donella “Dana” Meadows, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental writer, who published the work Limits to Growth with her MIT colleagues in 1972, and authored the syndicated column “The Global Citizen,” carried by the Reformer at the time. Every day, the community members balance their vision with their reality, both in consideration of business direction and their own physical limitations. Many meetings, much reflection, and lots of dialogue all play into this balancing act for each and every community member, from children to retired folks. From one cooperative to another, we honor their work and thank them for their results.
Visit the Co-op on Friday, July 12, from 11am-2pm, meet the folks from Cobb Hill Farm, and sample some of their lovely cheeses & frozen yogurt!