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Star Hill Dairy's David Muller is on a mission to introduce Americans to the glory of fresh mozzarella cheese and ses promise in the market for other Vermont farmers. "We could be buffalo central," Muller says.

By the Horns

by Lee Ann Cox
photograph by Mario Morgado

At first glance or taste, it’s fair to wonder who put the water buffalo herd in a Vermont barn or the rosemary and thyme in the maple syrup. No mystery, it’s the work of northeast specialty food producers, a diverse and growing group of entrepreneurs who — with significant help from an innovative UVM-based center — are making a difference for the region’s agricultural and economic landscape.

The aroma of maple syrup and melting chocolate fills the kitchen as Allan Sirotkin puts his old-fashioned labels onto rows of new glass jars. Sirotkin is the owner of Green River Chocolates, a tiny Hinesburg-based company striving to claim a piece of the $40 billion national specialty food industry. From the homey smells and the hand-written recipe book, one could imagine this production taking place in a farmhouse kitchen.

Luckily for Sirotkin, it’s not. He’s working in the Vermont Food Venture Center in Fairfax, a 3,600 square-foot “incubator kitchen” partnered with UVM’s Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship. The rambling facility — in a building that once simultaneously housed a general store, post office, and Masonic Temple — is modest by the mammoth standards of commercial food, but for the small business-people who use it, producing in a few hours what would have taken days to do at home, it’s a giant leap toward success.

“The biggest boost to my growth was being able to come down here,” says Marsha Phillips ’71, owner of the Mapled Nut Company and president of the Vermont Specialty Food Association. Phillips went from making five pounds to a hundred pounds of maple sugar-coated nuts in an hour. Her products are now in gourmet food shops all over New England, and she has sold to Harrods of London.

For fragile food start-ups like Phillips’s once was, the only thing more precious than time is money. The center saves both, by letting fledgling entrepreneurs increase their output and profits without investing in a facility, equipment, or expensive consultants. Stirring an industrial-sized kettle or working with a $5,000 mixer requires only nominal membership and per-hour fees, and that small investment buys expertise as well as equipment. The center nurtures business-people with advice on product development, scaling recipes, sourcing ingredients, food safety concerns, and regulatory red tape.

They’ll even pitch in and stir the pot, rewarded by the satisfaction of working with a motivated entrepreneur, says Brian Norder, director of the center. “When they finally make it through all the hurdles and see that first jar come off the labeler,” he says, “they’re like kids at Christmas time.”

Feeding the Economy

Supporting Vermonters (or anyone in the Northeast) with a recipe and a dream — be it salad dressing or sheep’s cheese — is the mission of NECFE, a partnership between the University of Vermont’s Center for Food Science and the New York State Food Venture Center at Cornell. Begun in 2000, it’s a project funded by a four-year, $3.8 million grant awarded by the USDA’s Fund for Rural America — the second largest grant the USDA has ever awarded to an academic institution.

The idea is to promote sustainable economic development in rural communities — and drive support for agriculture — by providing comprehensive assistance to new and growing specialty food entrepreneurs.

“Food manufacturing jobs,” says Catherine Donnelly, associate director of NECFE and professor of nutrition and food sciences at UVM, “are the second largest source of manufacturing jobs in Vermont, behind microelectronics.” With the tech industry in trouble and a shaky state economy in general, she says, food production is an increasingly important source of employment. Not to mention a major source of fantasy.

“Every time that movie Baby Boom plays on cable we get a spike in phone calls,” says Norder, referring to the 1987 film in which Diane Keaton’s character leaves a high-power consulting career in Manhattan, moves to Vermont and finds a life of love and money making gourmet baby food. “Everybody has Aunt Jenny’s recipe that people always tell them is the best they ever had, they ought to make it professionally.”

Of course, not everyone with a recipe from Aunt Jenny is prepared for the physical and financial toll of going commercial. To help would-be entrepreneurs evaluate their readiness, NECFE offers a reality-check workshop called “Recipe to Market.”

“We ask the hard questions,” says Donnelly. “Are you prepared to mortgage your home? Are you prepared to work this many hours a week? If you can leave this workshop saying ‘yes’ to these questions,” she says, “then we want to work with you.”

For those determined to go for it, according to Norder, NECFE may well have the most comprehensive set of resources in the country. The incubator kitchen is just the beginning. Food safety is one of their primary areas of expertise — and a passion for many of the staff — so they offer a number of services aimed at addressing it. Just getting the word out is a major mission in Vermont, where there are no regulations for food producers (unless they make dairy or meat products, which puts them under federal authority), which may be a boon to entrepreneurs in the state but clearly concerns the scientists at NECFE.

“You can’t just decide one day,” Donnelly says, “that you’re going to stop being a lawyer and start being a food producer and not appreciate the safety concerns.”

For those who do fall under USDA control, NECFE helps people understand and address the often bewilderingly complex regulations that were essentially written for large-scale food processors. And that’s where Donnelly also serves as an advocate for the mom-and-pop shops, calling herself “the little irritant” on national committees, pushing for regulations written in plain language.

“Government regulators focus their attention on the mainstream food industry, and they forget that there are small scale food entrepreneurs who don’t have PhDs in food science,” Donnelly says. “They are as valid a source of jobs as Kraft or General Foods,” she adds. “You know, Ben and Jerry started in a gas station and look where they went.”

Artisan’s Exchange

A rise from humble beginnings, if not quite as stellar as the famous ice cream duo’s, is nevertheless an experience that David and Cindy Major of Vermont Shepherd Cheese know. Their award-winning products are much heralded among food lovers and can be found on some of the best cheese trays from New York to San Francisco. But it wasn’t always like that.

“We made lousy cheese for years,” David Major says of their attempts to make aged sheep’s milk cheese on their own some fourteen years ago. Eventually the Majors packed up their young children and their cheese and went to France, where they were welcomed at farm after farm and taught not just a recipe but a whole philosophy of cheesemaking that would transform their lives: treat the milk with respect, go slow, and make cheese that reflects the flavor of your own farm.

Back in Vermont, they started fresh, hid their new cheese away and waited six long months for it to ripen. When the time came, Cindy Major insisted on tasting it alone: “I was prepared for failure; that’s all we’d had,” she says. “I got out the knife, the gnarliest one — our cheese was much uglier then than it is now — and cut it open and it was really good; it was what we’d always hoped for.”

While Cindy talks, David jumps in to remind her that their shepherd’s cheese looks better now because UVM cheese expert Paul Kinstedt advised them to keep turning the cheeses in the brine. Even before the establishment of NECFE, the Majors were getting technical assistance from the university, and they still periodically send in samples to be tested for pathogens.

Having found success the hard way, the Majors were determined to help cheesemakers who are starting out, a task that eventually became overwhelming as interest in specialty cheesemaking began to explode in Vermont. Now they refer people to NECFE, which is striving to offer the kind of institutional support that producers might get in France or Italy.

“We’re oversubscribing every cheesemaking workshop that we offer,” Donnelly says. “People from Texas are flying here to attend. It leads us to believe that there’s not a lot out there for small-scale cheesemakers.”
Cindy and David Major agree. They’re clearly grateful to be working where they are. “Not very many states have this kind of resource,” David says. “We know cheesemakers in other states who are operating in the dark.”

Market Force

Listening to Cindy Major describe the day she knew she had made extraordinary cheese, one gets a real sense of the heartbreaking passion and the long, lonely days of effort that so many food entrepreneurs pour into their work. That’s something NECFE marketing specialist Susan Callahan knows first hand.

“I can empathize,” says Callahan, who once owned a wholesale cheesecake business and also founded Burlington’s Cheese Outlet. She’s turned those experiences — along with a formidable energy and ability to connect with people — into a network of support for food entrepreneurs that includes everything from helping them devise a marketing strategy to just being a sounding board.

“I have a policy that you can call me anytime. And I always answer email the same day,” Callahan says.
One of her “email buddies” is Claudia Clark, a retired food scientist, who, Callahan says, has one of the most innovative products she's seen. Clark’s company, Moosewood Hollow, makes maple syrup infused with seasonings (Sweet Autumn is spiked with sweet spices and vanilla; Sweet Savory with rosemary, thyme and lemon).

“I sent prototypes off to everyone [at NECFE],” Clark says. “They gave me suggestions and tremendous encouragement.”

Callahan’s idea was to position the syrups as cooking ingredients and get them into trendy, upscale markets. Norder put Clark in touch with another Vermont entrepreneur who would be displaying at New York’s Fancy Food Show last summer. He took a few of her bottles and a couple of weeks later, Clark got a call from Better Homes & Gardens where her syrups were featured in last November’s issue. Not a bad beginning for someone who developed the idea while sugaring on a Weber grill with sap she tapped from her own trees.

The Food Chain

These days, Clark buys maple syrup from a nearby sugarhouse to support her growing business. That’s the kind of economic reaction NECFE was designed to catalyze — successful entrepreneurs partner with producers of local ingredients, spreading the wealth.

“I have my tomatillos grown by an organic farm in East Hardwick,” says Jeff Mitchell of Vermont Pepper Works, which makes an extensive line of hot pepper sauces in the Venture Center kitchen. He says he could get the produce for less than half the price in New Jersey, but he has vowed to keep his business as local as possible. “It’s just a feeling that I get when I cut a farmer a check and I know that it’s going to his family,” Mitchell says.

This kind of small step helps, but for Vermont agriculture to be sustainable, Donnelly says, farmers are going to have to diversify, making value-added products that sell for higher prices than raw ingredients. Devising ways to do that is an area to which NECFE is devoting its considerable scientific resources.

One of NECFE’s current projects is working with Pride of Vermont, a marketing cooperative of small goat and sheep farmers, to develop a product called violina de capra, an Italian cured ham similar to prosciutto. With grant money awarded to Pride of Vermont, NECFE sent a team of researchers to Italy to study production techniques and trials are taking place at the university.

Another area that is ripe for development, according to Donnelly, is “functional food,” products that have added health benefits. One example that NECFE is involved in is the creation of a protein-and-calcium-enriched cheese for Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, an exploratory project that wouldn’t have been possible without UVM, says co-owner Bob Reese ’79.

A New Vision

Whether they’re helping successful companies like Reese’s grow or advising wannabes, the people behind NECFE are relentlessly enthusiastic, faithful that their efforts will ultimately translate into more jobs and better incomes for farmers.

One client in South Woodstock may soon reward their optimism on a large scale. From David Muller’s 18th-century farmhouse, looking out over the surrounding hilly terrain, you can catch an unlikely sight, at least for Vermont: grazing water buffalo. Muller is an entrepreneur with an MBA and a PhD in chemistry — his resume includes developing the equipment and collaborating on the procedure for laser eye surgery. Now, he says, he wants to do something fun.

That, for Muller, means launching Star Hill Dairy, with the intention of introducing Americans to one of the most famous cheeses in the world, yet one that few have truly experienced: delicate, creamy “mozzarella di bufala,” so fresh it oozes milk when sliced.

“In Italy, the prime time to eat mozzarella is about ten hours after making it,” Muller says. "After two days, they throw it away." According to Muller, the United States imports about a million pounds of buffalo mozzarella a year, a number limited by supply, not demand. But the cheese is at least two weeks old and fading, he says, before it hits our markets.

“In most little towns in southern Italy there are ‘home-style’ makers of buffalo mozzarella,” Muller explains, “so when people get up in the morning they go get a loaf of bread, a quart of milk and their pound of mozzarella for the day. So I thought, I don’t buy milk from Italy, I don’t buy bread from Italy, why would I buy fresh cheese from Italy?”

The thing that most amazed Muller while researching the subject was that virtually no one was making buffalo mozzarella in the United States. The next most useful piece of information he uncovered was Susan Callahan’s name. Now he’s another of her email buddies.

“She's been this fount of resources, connecting me with people” Muller says. “She knows what I’m doing and she keeps her ears open.”

Callahan helped Muller find his cheesemaker, as well as a UVM scientist who’ll be making buffalo milk yogurt, which Muller expects will be in high demand in ethnic communities and in the growing ultra-rich yogurt market.

The potential rewards are rich for NECFE because Muller’s vision extends beyond the goal of putting exquisitely fresh cheese on the tables of the trendiest restaurants in New York and Boston. He hopes to have an impact on the future of Vermont agriculture.

“I’d like to help other dairy farmers to start milking water buffalo,” Muller says, “and then set up a larger manufacturing plant so we can process milk from other people. I can easily envision, within six or seven years, milking a couple of thousand water buffalo and making a million pounds of cheese a year. We could be buffalo central.”

To that end, Muller plans to spend the next two years building his herd, developing breeding stock and working on gene improvement. He’s building a 3,600-square-foot creamery and what appears to be luxury accommodations for the buffalo with an eco-friendly solid composting system for handling manure.

“A lot of farmers come by and look at what we’re doing and they’re very interested," says Muller, “but it always comes down to the same thing: show us that it works. I figure it will take a couple of years. It’s reasonable,” he adds, “that I demonstrate the viability.”

As a businessman, Muller insists that the venture be profitable. Beyond that, he says, it’s about helping the state. “Now why I would care about that since I’ve only lived here for a couple of years, I don’t exactly know,” he says. “It just feels right.”

Preserving Vermont’s rural character while improving economic conditions for its citizens is a goal that few who have been touched by this state wouldn't intuitively understand. No one at NECFE can be sure who the next Ben & Jerry might be, they just know that there is, as Callahan says, “a whole web of people who, when you add them up, are really doing something for Vermont.”