VTC Plans Milk-Processing Plant
Samantha Simons, a VTC student-intern, does a look-over the farm's largest cow before performing a routine health check-up at VTC's Farm in Randolph, Vt., on July 17, 2014. VTC is in the planning stages of creating a milk-processing plant with the hopes of providing milk to Vermont's colleges and universities.
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Samantha Simons, left, and Andy Kuhre, both student interns, work with calves to familiarize them with human contact at VTC's Farm in Randolph, Vt., on July 17, 2014. Both Simons and KuhreSamantha Simons, left, and Any Kuhre, both said they'd be interested in learning more about processing milk by working at the proposed facility.
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Randolph Center — Vermont Technical College plans to build a milk-processing plant to provide milk to all of Vermont’s state colleges, as well as other institutions across the region. The plant is also intended to serve as a teaching tool for students and entrepreneurs.
Brenda Snow, of Sno-Krest Jersey Farm in Brookfield, said she was hopeful that the new plant would benefit farmers in the White River Valley.
“Ideally, it gives us the opportunity to direct market our product,” she said.
Snow and her husband, Wes, have owned their farm for 40 years. The Snows now ship milk from their 35 Jerseys to Agri-Mark where it becomes Cabot cheese.
“We’d love to be able to tell people you can get it at such and such a store, but we can’t do that right now,” Snow said.
VTC plans to begin installing processing plant equipment, including a pasteurizer, separator, homogenizer and bagger, at the school’s dairy farm in Randolph Center this fall, said Chris Dutton, director of VTC’s Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems.
While Dutton said he had hoped to be able to invite area farmers, such as the Snows, to process their own milk using VTC’s new equipment, the plant will not be permitted to do so. Community members, however, will be invited to use VTC’s milk to produce their own products, Dutton said.
In addition to creating a space for the region’s entrepreneurs to access the equipment, Dutton said, the overall goals of the new plant include more directly connecting the school’s dairy to a market — the school’s milk is currently shipped to Booth Bros., which is owned by Hood — and providing an opportunity for VTC students to learn about dairy processing.
VTC has struggled to attract the students it needs to stay viable. Last year 100 fewer students than expected enrolled. In May, the school laid off six employees in an attempt to address a $2.5 million budget shortfall. The new plant is intended to make the dairy farm more self-sufficient, said Dutton.
He described the new plant as one piece of what he hopes will become a national “terroir-based” curriculum.
“It is going to help the state,” he said.
In just one day per week, Dutton said, the school’s 80 cows can provide enough milk — whole, 2%, skim and chocolate milk — for all the students in Vermont’s state college system.
He said he anticipated the rest of the school’s bagged milk would be distributed to other institutions around the region through Sodexo and cream will be sold to Randolph-based co-packer and custom baker Freedom Foods. In addition to milk and cream, Dutton said he expects the plant to produce yogurt.
To sell surplus milk, the school plans to continue its relationship with Booth Bros., he said.
An added bonus, said Dutton, is that processing dairy products on site will complete “a loop” for the school.
Beginning with soil and sunlight, Dutton said, students will have the opportunity to raise crops for the cows, produce milk and then process, pack and consume it. The loop is closed, he said, when the school’s methane digester transforms food waste into electricity and fertilizer to revitalize the soil for continued food production.
University of Vermont Extension Professor Bob Parsons said he was wary of VTC’s plans.
“Processing milk is not cheap,” said Parsons.
For example, Parsons pointed to the failed endeavor of the Vermont Milk Company in Hardwick, Vt., which closed in 2010 due to financial difficulties, and to Organic Cow of Tunbridge, which quickly outgrew its equipment and was sold to Horizon in 1999.
Funding for VTC’s plant comes from a combination of state and federal grants, including a $75,000 award from the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative announced last month. VTC’s award was among 37 grants totaling $1.1 million given to the state’s entrepreneurs and technical assistance providers in the second year of the program’s existence.
Approximately $450,000, the remainder of the processing plant’s costs, will come through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program, said Dutton.
Parsons admitted that the grant funding will give VTC’s project a leg up, but he said he had further questions about the viability of a processing plant so far from a metropolis.
“You need to sell where the people are, not where the farms are,” he said.
He questioned whether the regional market could support another dairy processor and suggested that producers would be “competing against each other for shelf space.”
While she admitted there are questions of feasibility remaining to be answered, Snow, the Brookfield dairy farmer, said she was optimistic that VTC’s new plant might help her 14-year-old son, Jarrett, keep the farm going in the future.
Snow said her son is “very active in the farm” and hopes to attend VTC as his father did.
To remain viable, Snow said, farms “have to have diversification.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.