Tim Taft/Taft’s Milk and Maple Farm – Huntington, Vermont: “We know that after record highs come record lows and we try to plan for it.  We didn’t go wild spending money last year because we had it.  Last year was nice.  But we just can’t plan on that.”

Tim Taft’s Vermont family farm has weathered booms and busts for decades.  And true to form, the fourth generation dairyman is riding out a downturn in milk prices - which have plummeted 40% from 2014’s record levels.

Tim Taft/Taft’s Milk and Maple Farm – Huntington, Vermont: “We can’t store our milk and hang onto it for a better price.  So that does make it quite volatile.”

For those faced with diminishing returns, there is insurance in the form of the Margin Protection Program, a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill.  Payouts trigger when the difference between nationwide milk prices and feed costs drop below producer-specified dollar amounts.  Taft admits the strategy he bought into can be risky.

Tim Taft/Taft’s Milk and Maple Farm – Huntington, Vermont: “Grain here is quite a bit more expensive than it would be in the Midwest.  They’re going to make the margin greater when ours might be tighter.  If we want to protect $7 of a margin, we may drop below that and not get paid anything because the whole country may average better than the $7 margin.”

Diversification is another way to hedge against uncertainty.  And among Vermont dairies it’s common to tap the state’s abundant hardwoods each spring for added profits.  The small New England state leads the nation in maple syrup production, cranking out close to half of the domestic supply in 2015.

Tim Taft/Taft’s Milk and Maple Farm – Huntington, Vermont: “The sugar house is on one side of the road and the dairy is on the other, so sometimes we say the money has to go across the road.”

However, some years maple harvest only lasts a few short weeks.  So – traditionally - milk and the range of products derivative of the liquid commodity have braced business tandems like Taft’s against adversity.

Chuck Ross/Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets – State of Vermont: “When you talk about Vermont agriculture, not only are we a top dairy producer in terms of quality, and one of the top 20 in terms of quantity, we also make some of the world’s best cheeses.  The artisanal cheese industry in this state is second to none.”

Cheese is a $650 million wedge in Vermont’s $2.2 billion annual dairy industry.  And officials tout world-class quality of the Green Mountain State’s buttermilk bounty.  According to state commerce agency numbers, 60% of New England’s milk supply is sourced in Vermont.  The state does sell food across the globe, but industry promotion groups play up what they call ‘regional exports’.

In a statement to Market to Market, The Vermont Cheese Council laid out a strategy, saying:  “We will focus on domestic markets we can get a foothold in and work to develop a greater appreciation for American made farmstead and raw milk cheeses in the U.S.  This is a market that we can develop and grow with no constraints or boundaries.”

But just this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration drew the ire of local producers and national lawmakers when it changed guidelines for bacteria populations found in the Vermont staple.

Representative Peter Welch and Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders sent a letter to the FDA, protesting the decrease in acceptable levels of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw milk cheeses from 10-thousand MPN or ‘most probable number’ of microorganisms to just 10 MPN per gram.  Claiming the added stringency is inconsistent with internationally recognized cheese standards – and unnecessary because the strain of E. coli mentioned is typically not harmful to people, the three Congressional leaders wrote:  “Cheese production is an important, and growing component of our nation’s value-added economy.  It is an economic driver in rural areas across the country, producing good jobs, internationally-recognized brands, and award-winning cheeses.”

Adam Smith/Quality Manager – The Cellars at Jasper Hill: “Without high quality milk, you don’t have high quality cheese.  Cheese milk and fluid milk are quite different.  And we work to produce a clean, raw milk that we do pasteurize for some of our cheese, but a clean, raw milk that produces high quality cheese.  And we certainly pay for it.  I think good handmade, hand-grown food in general deserves a higher price tag.”

Greensboro-based Jasper Hill Farm, a celebrated area cheesemaker, released a statement on the new FDA policy as well, saying:  “Every industry needs good regulation in order to thrive.  As a cheesemaking community, we are not asking for ‘less’ regulation, we are asking for ‘good’ regulation that is developed transparently and based on solid science.”

Situated in the pristine Northeast Kingdom, a region nestled between the Green Mountains, Canada, and the upper Connecticut River, Jasper Hill produces cheese aged in bunker-style cellars onsite – along with product from competitors.  Quality Manager Adam Smith finds such partnerships benefit much more than just the bottom line.

Adam Smith/Quality Manager – The Cellars at Jasper Hill: “What’s awesome about Vermont is the community of cheesemakers.  There’s a lot of support.  There’s a lot of exchange of ideas…”

While milk to cheese conversion generally takes just a day, fermentation is the X factor.  Some cheeses age for two weeks before being sent to high-end counters and supermarkets across the country.  Other varieties can take up to 14 months for internal chemical changes to steadily improve texture, taste, and return on investment.  And while the margin between risk and reward remains difficult to predict, Vermont’s agricultural advocates are confident the cream will rise to the top.

Chuck Ross/Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets – State of Vermont: “Since 2009 to 2013, we have added over 4,000 jobs in the farm and food sector alone.  That’s real growth in a small state like this.  Our dairy producers are providing great raw product, and our cheese producers are just killing it when it comes to all kinds of different kinds of cheese – not only here in Vermont – but quite frankly, worldwide.” 

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.