Ferrisburgh farmers bottle their own milk
HINESBURG/FERRISBURGH — There’s a new brand of organic milk hitting the shelves in stores around Vermont from a Ferrisburgh farm that after years producing high-quality milk is now also bottling it and sending it to retailers.
Kimball Brook Farm has been milking 200 Jersey and Holstein cows and selling to the national market for 15 years. But when Cheryl and J.D. DeVos flipped the switch at their small Hinesburg bottling plant on May 17, they were marking a major transition to processor and distributor of their own milk.
For now, the DeVoses are processing about 500 gallons a week, said Cheryl DeVos — about one-seventh of the milk the farm produces. The plant, originally named Green Mountain Organic Creamery (they are phasing the name out to avoid conflict with Green Mountain Creamery in Brattleboro), is housed in the former Saputo cheese factory in Hinesburg that was closed after a 2008 fire, and is running one to two days each week and looking to employ five or six people now and possibly as many as 25 down the road.
It is producing whole, one-percent, skim and chocolate milk; heavy cream; and half-and-half in half gallons, quarts and pints. It is also turning out “cream-top whole milk,” an unhomogenized milk that is marketed with the suggestion that consumers “spoon the cream into your coffee and save the skim for a smoothie.”
Right now, the bottled milk is sold at outlets from Waitsfield to Burlington, including to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (a full list of retailers is at kimballbrookfarm.com). The DeVoses, with the help of their daughter Hilary, are also building up a presence at farmers’ markets in the area. They are distributing their own milk within 50 miles, but they also have an agreement with Burlington-based Black River Produce to distribute further afield.
Kimball Brook Farm has been in J.D.’s family since 1968. Cheryl and J.D. bought the Greenbush Road farm from his parents in 1997 and have been producing organic milk for seven years. After netting a host of awards for high-quality milk and conservation farming practices, Kimball Brook Farm was named by the University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association as Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year for 2011.
The opening of the Hinesburg bottling plant is a milestone for the DeVoses, who have been courting investors, applying for loans, writing business plans and conducting feasibility studies since 2008.
“It’s very difficult, but you just have to take it one day at a time, and be really enthusiastic about the project,” said Cheryl DeVos, looking back at the past four years.
At the end of the day, the project took a little longer than expected, but finished at just about the estimated cost of $1 million with the help of investors, loans from People’s United Bank and the Vermont Economic Development Authority, as well as some smaller grants from the state. The DeVoses also received a $225,000 guaranteed loan through the United States Department of Agriculture Business and Industry Loan program a USDA value-added grant for $300,000, which they have not yet used.
Finding equipment also turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, DeVos said. As it turns out, they were competing for parts with quite a few other farmers around the nation who are looking to create small dairy processing plants. All of the equipment is used and reconditioned, built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
“They just do not make bottling equipment this small anymore,” DeVos said.
Eventually, they got most of the equipment from a small farm in Missouri that was transitioning away from milk processing to cheesemaking.
Though the building process has finished and the plant is up and running, DeVos said they are far from the end of the road. The introduction of a new product has brought on a whole new set of roles for the family and their growing ranks of employees: distribution, sales and marketing, plant management.
“It’s been a long process, and it’s going to be a longer process on the other end,” she said.
IRONING OUT THE KINKS
This is the beginning of a couple months of running the plant on a limited basis, making sure the process is smooth and that everything is in working order. One morning last week, the machinery was quiet and J.D. and plant manager Karl Holzschuh were tweaking the bottle capping mechanism.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said Cheryl DeVos.
Over time, the DeVoses plan to truck more and more of their milk the 12 miles between their farm and the plant, and Cheryl said eventually all of their milk will be bottled under the Kimball Brook Farm label. Down the road, she added, they may also look to take on milk from other small dairies.
The plant has the capacity to process as much milk as Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge or Thomas Dairy in Rutland. The DeVoses hope to target a large geographic area with their organic product — similar to Strafford Organic Creamery in Vermont or Battenkill Valley Creamery in New York.
As the Kimball Brook Farm bottling facility expands, the family will also be looking beyond Vermont markets to Boston. While the milk is bottled in plastic jugs now, they plan to sell their milk in glass bottles as well. They also hope to begin producing butter and ice cream with the extra cream from their milk.
For now, though, the DeVoses are taking it one step at a time, and appreciating how far they’ve come on the project when they have a moment to spare.
“We haven’t had enough time to sit back and think about it,” said Cheryl DeVos of opening the plant. “But it was awesome. It really was.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
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