A Cheesy Story For Success: The Vermont Institute Of Artisan Cheese

Publish Notes: 

Taste Of New England Keene, NH 2004

A Cheesy Story For Success: The Vermont Institute Of Artisan Cheese
A Cheesy Story For Success: The Vermont Institute Of Artisan Cheese

BURLINGTON, VT. - The Vermont Institute Of Artisan Cheese (VIAC) Explores A Growing Vermont Industry: In New England's growing landscape of small businesses, more and more
entrepreneurs are starting their own food companies. Within this specialty food growth trend, handmade artisan cheese has become quite prevalent, with Vermont in particular now having the highest number of cheesemakers per capita in the country.

Photos courtesy of VIAC
Add to this the smaller and specialty artisan cheesmakers throughout New England and quite frankly, this country is taking notice of the region's growing expertise in the field. A leading culinary magazine recently chose an American cheese "top 50", with Vermont placing seven cheesemakers on the list, including Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, and the aforementioned Grafton Cheese and Vermont Butter &Cheese companies.

Various specialty food products such as maple syrup, salsa, and artisan cheese are contributing more and more to New England's overall economic growth, and enhancing the sustainable agricultural production of food products within its communities. According to the Vermont Specialty Food Association, there are over 100 companies currently registered as members, a number that has grown from a dozen when the association was created in 1997.

The Vermont Cheese Council states that they currently have 31 cheese making members producing roughly 70 million pounds of cheese per year, not to mention smaller artisan cheese makers and farmsteads who might not be council members, but market a specialty food product.

Along with this food trend, a need to expand upon food knowledge had become increasingly dependant on access to some sort of "state of the art" laboratory and research facility. Enter the University Of Vermont UVM), well respected for their expertise in agriculture and food products, and linked in partnership with the renowned New York State Food Venture Center at Cornell University in New York.

In 1996, after receiving $250,000 from the U. S. Department Of Agriculture's "Rural Business Enterprise Grant" program, and with the help from the Vermont Technical Council and Vermont State Senator Patrick Laehy, the Center For Food Science at UVM was established.

This included the renovation of the Carrigan Dairy Science Building, which would also house the new food center. The Center For Food Science, along with the aforementioned New York Sate Food Venture Center, jointly offers outreach programs, research development, and technology.

Fast forward to May of 2004 and another breakthrough. With $500,000 in funding from U. S. Senator James Jeffords ($200,000), the John Merck Foundation ($150,000), and a private donor ($150,000), UVM launches the Vermont Institute For Artisan Cheese (VIAC). This is the first organization in the U. S. dedicated to providing "European-style" professional education to handcrafted cheesemakers.

"We are extremely grateful to the John Merck Fund and our anonymous donor for helping to make this important new institute possible," stated Dr. Catherine Donnelly, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at UVM and Co-Director of VIAC. "Each deserves great credit for seeing the vital role the institute can play in helping Vermont's artisan cheesmakers, and their role in the state's economic development."

The main objective of the VIAC is to provide specialized assistance, education, research, technical service, and public outreach for artisan cheese producers. "Artisan cheesemaking is perfect for Vermont. It supports our dairy farms, encourages tourism, and bolsters our international reputation for high-quality specialty food products," Senator Jeffords stated in the latest VIAC press release. "I congratulate the University Of Vermont for its leadership in supporting this important industry".

The VIAC connects cheesemakers with UVM cheese experts, dairy scientists, and other international experts who concentrate on food safety and quality assurance, state and federal regulations, and technical training. "We are committed to supporting small-scale food processors because we realize their critical role in the development of the local economic community," VIAC Outreach Coordinator Jody Farnham said in a recent interview.

VIAC offers a series of courses and workshops aimed at providing this technical education about cheese and its' production, and aims to be a "European-style one-stop shop" for cheesemakers. The intense professional workshops can also lead to a "Master Artisan Cheesemaker Certificate."

These workshops and lectures on rare cheeses that are not sold in the US,is not only important, but unprecedented. "These courses bring professionals from other countries to demonstrate cheesemaking the way it is done on their farms", stated Dawn Morin-Boucher of Green Mountain Blue Cheese and Boucher Family Farm in Highgate, Vt. "I will never be able to travel to Europe, but through these courses, the VIAC brings European traditions to me. I will also be attending a French cheese class in November."

The VIAC programs can help cheesemakers on several levels. Along with the public outreach and awareness lectures mentioned, they offer specific courses designed for both established companies and beginners, and also provide professional and technical support for established cheesemakers with specific concerns.

"Though they do not provide routine testing, they will troubleshoot problems that cheesemakers might have", Morin-Boucher said of VIAC's technical expertise. "There is a nominal fee that is far out weighed by the amount of product saved when a foreign mold or yeast is detected, identified, and eradicated quickly. Many cheesemakers have already used this service, we are among them."

There are several 'one-day' programs offered as well. A "Certified Cheesmaker Program" introduces key concepts to beginning cheesemakers, a "General Cheese Program" provides workshops for chefs and other food professionals and a "Public Education" course offers information ranging from cheese tasting to technical practices.

"Whether you're having trouble replicating a batch of award-winning cheese, need help understanding new regulations, or want guidance identifying a market and the distribution channels to reach it, we'll have the expertise to help," states Paul Kindsted, Professor of Nutrition at UVM and Co-Director of the VIAC with Dr. Donnelly.

The fee structures for these various programs work on a "fee for enrollment" basis, with costs ranging from $435-$650 for a three-day "Cheesemaking Intensive" course, and $70-$80 for the individual "day" workshops. Various discounts are offered to in-state residents and multiple course registrations as well.

Other recent VIAC studies have included a "Cheese Chemistry Short Course", and an "Artisan Cheesemaking Practices" course. Some upcoming 2005 summer classes will include a "Basic Sensory Evaluation", a "Essential Principles and Practices" class, and an intro to "American Raw Milk Cheeses" course, among others. These classes are scheduled to run from May 23-27.

Another future activity will include a "Renaissance of Irish Cheese" course in September. Most of these three-day courses include a binder of class materials, along with breakfast, lunch, and coffee is also provided.

One recent VIAC public outreach lecture featured an Italian cheese tasting event, with expert advice from world renowned Italian professor/educator/author Dr. Giuseppe Licitra. But do these guest lectures help the Vermont cheesemaking community?

The question was presented to Morin-Boucher of Green Mountain Blue Cheese, whose company has already utilized the VIAC facility. "Yes, I believe these outreach programs help both farmers and cheesmakers," she said. "By raising awareness and an appreciation for our products. Consumers become more educated as to the importance of their role in keeping small farms in Vermont viable, and cheesmaking profitable."

"The recent public education event was amazing, the students learned a lot about the old fashioned ways in which cheese was made in Sicily," Farnham said. "Dr. Licitra spoke about the culture and history of cheese in this country and how important it is to maintain the traditions for food and wines from there (Sicily."

"This latest lecture was about hard Italian cheese, and our farm will be testing one of the recipes for sale at the Farmer's Market this season," Boucher concluded. Success stories such as this will allow the VIAC to continue offering workshops, conferences, and speaking engagements throughout the northeast. To learn more visit their web site at www.uvm.edu/viac or call (802) 656-8300. Also, the Vermont Cheese Council at www.vtcheese.com, is another informative place to start.