Organic dairy taking control of its destiny

FERRISBURGH — J.D. and Cheryl DeVos are no newcomers to the struggles of dairy farming. They took over the family farm in 1997 and began the three-year transition to organic milk production in 2005 in the hope that the guarantees of higher prices on the organic market would shelter their business from the volatility of the conventional milk market.
But as the economy declined and demand for organic milk fell, market instability spurred the DeVoses to take additional steps to ensure a fair price for their milk. Later this year, they plan to begin selling their milk under the Green Mountain Organic Creamery label, taking control not only of the milk production, but of processing, bottling, marketing and distribution.
“We were worried about a sustainable pay price,” said Cheryl.
The DeVoses have raised nearly $1 million to finance the operation, through loans, grants and local backers. The funds have allowed them to rent space in the old Saputo milk processing plant in Hinesburg, in the coming weeks they plan to purchase bottling equipment from a closed milk plant in Missouri, and they have renegotiated their contract with their milk buyer, Horizon Organic, to allow them to route 20 percent of the milk from their 200 cows — about 2,500 gallons each week — to the creamery.
If all goes well, said Cheryl, the DeVoses hope to begin sending milk to Hinesburg in late May.
When it opens, the creamery will be only the second of its kind in Vermont. Strafford Organic Creamery processes milk and ice cream, distributing it regionally.
But if they are successful, the DeVoses hope to take their business one step further: they will be looking to purchase milk from other local organic dairy farmers to bottle under the same label.
“We want to make sure that farmers are getting paid above their price of production,” said Cheryl. “We want the creamery to be profitable, but we also want the farmers to be profitable.”
So far, the DeVoses have heard interest from a number of local farmers, and in order to get some of their financing they also had to find potential buyers — among them independent local grocery stores like the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and larger companies like Whole Foods. As the Green Mountain Organic Creamery expands, said Cheryl, the plan is to expand into regional markets, targeting the large populations of Boston and New York City.
The DeVoses have big hopes for the creamery, but they also have a great deal of community support. Nancy Everhart, conservation director for the Vermont Farm Viability Program (an offshoot of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board) worked with the DeVoses to help them create a business plan and bring in some funding for the project. She said the project has potential.
“It’s great to see people like them take the initiative,” said Everhart. “They’ve been working really hard to get the financing together.”
And, she said, it follows right in line with the greater move toward local production and processing in the state.
“It really fits in with what Gov. Shumlin has been talking about,” she said. “It’s the kind of expansion that can provide more local food for Vermonters and provide more local jobs.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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