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Cheddar-making giant looms in Cabot plant

MIDDLEBURY — Thanks to a huge new piece of machinery, the Cabot manufacturing plant in Middlebury’s industrial park will be able to process 4,000 more pounds of cheese curd per hour than the 8,000 pounds the current machine handles.
That’s as much weight as a fully grown great white shark or a large family car … every hour.
In Vermont, where cheese season never ends, that’s an announcement worth moo-ing about.
The Cabot/Agri-Mark plant installed the huge machine, appropriately called the CheddarMaster this summer. It includes a draining matting conveyer and a salting mellowing conveyor. The two will eventually replace the current conveyers at the plant, after about three months of testing and preparation for the switchover.
At 36 feet long and 15.5 feet wide the installation of the new CheddarMaster has been no simple undertaking.
The plant must expand to fit the 22-ton piece of equipment that will increase production of the 26 truck-sized vats — each holding enough milk to make 6,000 pounds of cheese — that get filled daily.
Over a year in planning, the project cost $10 million and required the construction of a new building to house the massive machine. Additionally, new pipes and a new cleaning system have to be installed.
“It’s not just a matter of putting the equipment in, you have to make all the connections,” said Jim Tringe, director of plant services for Agri-Mark.
Custom-made in Minnesota by Tetra Pak, a company focused on food processing and packaging, installation of the equipment began June 3. Construction on the building is almost complete and has relied on a number of local businesses to provide the additional utilities, such as water, air, lighting and power.
Once the new equipment is deemed sufficient, it will take over the cheese curd preparations. Tringe anticipates that the CheddarMaster will be ready for use by the end of September.
“The new equipment will help us get better yields and better efficiency while making our product,” said Doug Dimento, spokesperson for Agri-Mark, the farmer cooperative that merged with Cabot 20 years ago. “Farmers are making that investment, it’s all farmers’ dollars.”
While farmers’ dollars are investing in the most advanced equipment, the plant also invests in a crew of 114 employees, all working together to produce cheddar of the highest quality.
“It’s an interface of artisan and technological processing,” said Todd Shuttleworth, production manager at the Middlebury plant.
The plant produces 65 million pounds of cheese per year and is the largest manufacturing plant in the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, of which Cabot is one of three brands.
Running 24 hours a day/seven days a week, it serves to make and age Cabot’s famous Vermont Cheddar. The plant also processes whey liquids, which are left over from the cheesemaking process, to produce whey proteins and permeate, which is sold around the world. Additionally, the facility serves as a warehouse for cheese and whey products, with the capacity to store up to 2 million pounds of cheese.
“We’re committed to making high-quality products and maintaining a high-quality plant and system,” said Dimento.
On a daily basis, 120 Vermont and New York dairy farmers supply the milk for the Middlebury plant, although that number increases on weekends and holidays when other plants are closed. Addison County is one of the largest membership areas in the farmers coop, helping to supply the milk that comes to the plant every day.
“It’s really important for us to have quality milk, we couldn’t be in business without that quality,” said Shuttleworth.
The plant itself was built in the early 1970s by Kraft as a Swiss cheese-making facility. At that time Agri-Mark was Yankee Milk and working as a supplier for Kraft.
In 1993, Kraft announced its plan to close the plant, and in 1994 Agri-Mark decided to purchase and transform the plant into a cheddar-making kingdom.
Agri-Mark closed a facility in Troy, Vt., and moved most of its cheddar production to Middlebury. Since then, the plant has grown into what Dimento called a “state-of-the-art facility.” Cabot — at $40 million in sales in 1992 — has grown as well and is now selling $650 million a year in products.
With the installation of the new equipment, the plant hopes to continue expanding its cheese production.
“We expect this to be here for a long time, making cheese,” Tringe said. “It’s a good place for it, it’s where the milk is.”

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