Shelburne Farms’ Farmstead Cheddar

A value-added product with a sustainable mission

Head Cheesemaker Nat Bacon in the ‘cheddaring’ phase of cheese production. Every day cheesemakers transform nearly 6,000 pounds of milk, which is then aged for at least six months.

By Rosalyn Graham

Recognizing that selling the milk of their herd of Brown Swiss cows on the fluid milk market was a losing battle and after a short venture into bottling the premium milk for direct sale under their own label, the leaders of Shelburne Farms had a eureka moment. They decided to explore the possibility of making the milk into a value-added product that could be sold for a premium price, could carry the Shelburne Farms name to consumers all over the country, and fitted the vision of sustainable agriculture to which they were committed: cheddar cheese.

In 1981, dairy staff member, Bill Clapp, and Marshall Webb, great-grandson of the founders of the Farms, tackled the challenging job of learning to make cheese, specifically cheddar, the classic aged hard cheese.

Clapp and Webb went off for a winter of apprenticing at the centuries-old Montgomery Yard in England, the home of cheddar, and came home to put the lessons into practice. Little did they know that they were at the forefront of a new trend of small-scale cheesemaking, using only the milk of their own herd, and making the cheese on the Farm, to produce Farmstead cheese.

In the 30 years that have passed, small-scale artisanal cheesemaking in Vermont and around the country on farms where the milk comes from cows, goats, sheep, and even water buffalo, has grown exponentially. When the American Cheese Society (ACS) was founded in 1983, America cheese was typically mild orange cheese (and cheese slices) mass-produced by huge companies and the ACS had only a few dozen cheesemaker members. Today there are 1,500 members and there were over 1,700 entries in the annual cheese competition.

For Shelburne Farms, producing cheddar is more than a way to transform the milk of the cows into a profitable product that helps to support the educational mission of the Farms.

Making cheese is also a demonstration of the sustainable agriculture that Shelburne Farms practices…sustainable agriculture for a sustainable future. The cows of Shelburne Farms graze on carefully maintained pastures on the hills overlooking Lake Champlain, and in the winter eat hay harvested from the Shelburne Farms fields. Whey, the liquid that drains from the vat when the milk has coagulated into curds, is spread on the fields, as is the cow manure, to return nutrients to the soil.

Production of Shelburne Farms Cheddar has grown steadily in 30 years, reaching 155,000 pounds this year. Every pound of Shelburne Farms Farmstead Cheese in its handsome brown wax carries its message from the Farm, reminding customers as they eat and enjoy its rich taste that they are supporting the mission of Shelburne Farms. For everyone who loves Shelburne Farms and finds its message inspiring, buying a block of cheese is like buying a block of inspiration.

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