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,"
Lee Ann Cox
photograph by Mario Morgado
first glance or taste, its fair to wonder who put the water buffalo
herd in a Vermont barn or the rosemary and thyme in the maple syrup. No
mystery, its 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
regions 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, its not. Hes working in the Vermont
Food Venture Center in Fairfax, a 3,600 square-foot incubator kitchen
partnered with UVMs 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, its 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 Phillipss 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.
Theyll 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, theyre
like kids at Christmas time.
Supporting Vermonters (or anyone in the Northeast) with a recipe and a
dream be it salad dressing or sheeps cheese is the
mission of NECFE, a partnership between the University of Vermonts
Center for Food Science and the New York State Food Venture Center at
Cornell. Begun in 2000, its a project funded by a four-year, $3.8
million grant awarded by the USDAs 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 Keatons 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 Jennys 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.
cant just decide one day, Donnelly says, that youre
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 thats 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 dont 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
A rise from humble beginnings, if not quite as stellar as the famous ice
cream duos, 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 wasnt always like that.
We made lousy cheese for years, David Major says of their
attempts to make aged sheeps 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; thats all
wed 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 wed always hoped for.
While Cindy talks, David jumps in to remind her that their shepherds
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.
Were oversubscribing every cheesemaking workshop that we offer,
Donnelly says. People from Texas are flying here to attend. It leads
us to believe that theres not a lot out there for small-scale cheesemakers.
Cindy and David Major agree. Theyre 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.
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. Thats something NECFE marketing specialist Susan Callahan
knows first hand.
I can empathize, says Callahan, who once owned a wholesale
cheesecake business and also founded Burlingtons Cheese Outlet.
Shes 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. Clarks 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.
Callahans 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 Yorks
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 Novembers 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.
These days, Clark buys maple syrup from a nearby sugarhouse to support
her growing business. Thats 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. Its just a feeling
that I get when I cut a farmer a check and I know that its 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
One of NECFEs 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
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
wouldnt have been possible without UVM, says co-owner Bob Reese
Whether theyre helping successful companies like Reeses 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 Mullers 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 dont buy
milk from Italy, I dont 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 Callahans
name. Now hes another of her email buddies.
She's been this fount of resources, connecting me with people
Muller says. She knows what Im doing and she keeps her ears
Callahan helped Muller find his cheesemaker, as well as a UVM scientist
wholl be making buffalo milk yogurt, which Muller expects will be
in high demand in ethnic communities and in the growing ultra-rich yogurt
The potential rewards are rich for NECFE because Mullers 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.
Id 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. Hes 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
A lot of farmers come by and look at what were doing and theyre
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. Its reasonable, he adds, that I demonstrate
As a businessman, Muller insists that the venture be profitable. Beyond
that, he says, its about helping the state. Now why I would
care about that since Ive only lived here for a couple of years,
I dont exactly know, he says. It just feels right.
Preserving Vermonts 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.