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March Producer of the Month

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Producer of the Month: Grafton Village Cheese PDF Print E-mail

by Sabine Rhyne
June 2014

The Brattleboro Food Co-op exists to meet its shareholders needs for a sustainable local economy, among other ends. As part of this goal, we sell and promote many of the local products that make our local economy more vibrant. The Windham Foundation based in Grafton, VT, is on a mission to promote the vitality of Grafton and Vermont’s rural communities, and these efforts are based on profits from its economic engines. Grafton Village Cheese is an important economic generator for the foundation, but it also engenders the mission in its relationship with quite a few family farms. And soon you will see how similar our endeavors are.

Beginning in 1892, dairy farmers around Grafton created a cooperative cheese-making business to use surplus milk, a strong parallel to family farms around the state today. Fluid milk producers of all kinds see survival in value-added products that use their milk, hence the thriving artisan cheese business in our state. The Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company served its members until a fire destroyed the factory in 1912. In the 1960s, the Windham Foundation restored the plant, and the new Grafton Village Cheese was born. Many around Brattleboro remember when the foundation built the new cheese plant next to the Retreat Farm as a way to support both the viability of the property and increase the capacity of the cheesemaking. Throughout these changes, Grafton Village Cheese has continued to make raw milk cheese by hand, with a consistent supply of fluid milk from a particular set of farms. Early on, they were able to secure a milk route from Agrimark, with milk from 19 to 21 family farms in the Woodstock/Hartland area delivered directly to Grafton. As the company grew, Agrimark continued to work closely with Grafton Village Cheese to develop and choose other farms with Jersey cows, since Jersey milk makes up over 90% of the milk that is used to make the cheese we know and love.

Speaking of the cheese, Grafton Village is known first and foremost as an artisan cheddar producer. In addition to the cheddar that is aged as long as you prefer, up until 6 years if supply allows, notes Meri Spicer, the Director of Sales and Marketing, they also make Maple Smoked Cheddar, a younger cheese, and Sage and Garlic cheddars, which are holiday favorites. Relatively recently, the Clothbound Cheddar was introduced, aged in Grafton’s caves wrapped in cheesecloth. The Brattleboro plant makes cheddar exclusively. But the Grafton plant also makes newer specialty cheeses, nearly all of which have been receiving awards in national and international cheese shows, and all of which are aged in the Grafton caves. The four caves, or ageing rooms, in Grafton that house all these delicious new cheeses are used for cheeses of different types of rinds. The Vermont Leyden is flavored with cumin seeds, Shepsog is a sheep/cow’s milk cheese, the Bear Hill is an alpine cheese, the Red Vask is a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese, along with others as inspiration and milk allow. The supply of sheep’s milk is small, though, so by their very nature, the sheep and mixed-milk specialty cheeses are small-batch cheeses. The namesake cheddars, however, do a robust business, with 60% of them selling between September and January.
Grafton Village Cheese employs about 40 people, with 32 of those in the Brattleboro facility. Since the business picks up so dramatically in the fall, additional temporary help is hired to double the packaging line’s capacity.  Many of the staff have been at Grafton for a long time. There are even multi-generational cheesemakers there. Ellyn Ladd, Grafton Village Cheese’s General Manager, notes that many of their cheesemakers started as high school students working in the plant after school. In a meeting with Ellyn, Meri, and Bob Allen, president of Windham Foundation and Grafton Village Cheese, the longevity and stability of the current staff was one of the high points of the conversation. “We have really good people here,” they said. “Some of the packaging crew have been together for 12 to 15 years!”
The Brattleboro plant has more capacity available. As a part of the Windham Foundation’s mission, Grafton Village Cheese supports many family farms by making cheese for them from their milk. This co-packing facet may continue to grow, as the new federal regulations from the Food Safety Modernization Act take effect. The Grafton Village plants are making the shift to Safe Quality Food certification, which would ensure government-style safe standard operating procedures for everything from the back door to the front door. “It’s a big job, getting everything ready for these new regulations,” said Ellyn. “We have been submitting our standard operating procedures and other documents and hope to be through the entire process by the end of the year.”
Grafton Village Cheese also allows some farms to purchase ingredients or materials from their larger quantity buys, a service that, for instance, enables farms to pay much less for salt that they may need for their cheese than they might need to spend on a smaller package.
Grafton Village Cheese is a large artisan cheesemaker that still makes cheese by hand, but makes a fair amount of cheese. They just added a day’s production at the plant, which will increase their output by 300,000 pounds. That sounds like a lot of cheese, but as Bob and Ellyn point out, Cabot Cheese makes one year of Grafton’s output in a month. Vermont is a very cheesy place, housing cheesemakers that are very tiny, often on-farm, to Grafton Village Cheese, that is perhaps considered medium-sized, to Cabot that is huge, with multiple plants. What is certain is that Grafton Village Cheese’s iteration of the Windham Foundation’s mission is quite literally supporting rural families, from fluid milk producers to small cheesemaking farmers, as well as 40 employees in the big red building on Route 30 and in Grafton, where it all began.

 

Meet the folks from Grafton Village Cheese at the Co-op on June 12 from 11am to 1pm!