Amid the farm houses and barns dotting the Mad River Valley area of rural Vermont, five miles north of Sugarbush ski resort, Marisa Mauro is making butter.
About 700 pounds of it every week.
While she and her assistant pack up golden bricks of butter, they can stare out at panoramic views of lush green hills that go technicolor red and yellow in autumn and sparkly white in winter.
But there’s no daydreaming here. Her business, Ploughgate Creamery at Bragg Farm, is booming, and her butter sells for $16 to $20 per pound to specialty shops, co-ops and Whole Foods grocery stores around the country.
“I’d say the biggest difference with our butter is that it’s handmade, and our hands are on every step of the process,” said Mauro, 33. “Two girls are cranking out a lot of butter.”
Mauro’s butter is rich and fatty, fresh but nutty, and it has a grassy tang that comes straight from the cows who made the cream. Those cows live just 30 miles down the road at Monument Farms. (Visit them to get fresh coffee milk, a New England original that adds sweet coffee flavor to cold milk.)
Mauro packs some of the butter without salt and mixes large sea salt crystals into the rest, selling it as a salted variety with little flakes of texture and even more flavor.
Butter is making a comeback
To ensure the best flavor, Mauro held blindfolded taste-testing parties pitting her butter against anything she could have shipped to her house. She had no problem getting friends to take part, and, of course, her butter won.
Americans eat an average of 5.7 pounds of butter annually, a pound more than they were just 10 years ago, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
It’s even more popular abroad: in the first five months of the year, American dairy makers exported butter at double the pace of last year. They sent most of it, about 18,000 tons, to Canada and Mexico.
“We’ve gone up more than a pound per person,” said Robert Crop, Professor Emeritus and Dairy Marketing Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You have to go back quite a ways, in the ’60s or so, to find per capita consumption that high.”
For the past half a century, butter’s tastiness has been downplayed because of its levels of saturated fat. It was replaced with margarine for a time, but that also went out of style.
The nutritional research has gotten even more complicated, but all that advice has run up against a near-hysterical adoration for cooking shows, cooking competitions, baking competitions and the desire to eat anything they inspire.
The farm-to-table mantra now seems to be: Spend a little more, eat the good stuff, and just make sure you know where it comes from.
Vermont has a lot of dairy
Vermont offers a non-stop smorgasbord of opportunities to taste fresh butter, yogurt, ice cream and cheese. Nearly 70% of the farms in the state are devoted to milk, and there are dozens of farmsteads, dairies and creameries throughout the state. (To be clear, a dairy is where they only milk cows, a creamery is where they only make dairy products, and a farmstead is where they do both.)
“I fell in love with the dairy industry because of Vermont farmers,” said Mauro. “Vermont dairy farmers are the most hardworking people.”
Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is the most recognizable brand, and they offer tours, tastings and a “flavor graveyard” of good ice cream intentions gone wrong.
There’s also Cabot, Vermont Creamery and a slew of artisanal makers. Many have markets out front where you can buy freshly-made products and chat with the folks who’ve helped to make it. Ploughgate doesn’t yet have a shop, and you can’t visit, but you can buy the butter online through Saxelby Cheesemongers.
A rare sight — a farmer in her thirties
At age 33, Mauro isn’t a typical Vermont farmer. With the average farmer’s age in the state at 55 — and getting older, the industry needs young people like Mauro to get interested in agriculture. Farmers’ children just don’t want to take over their parents’ farms, according to Crop, the dairy professor.
“The dairy industry is going through an awful lot of change,” said Crop. “We’ve lost a lot of dairy farmers.”
Mauro’s love of farming started early and was strongly encouraged by her dad, a contractor who always brought stray animals home to their 7-acre property.
“I feel really fortunate that I knew that I wanted to be involved in the dairy industry since I was 16,” said Mauro. “I was lucky to just have stumbled across that life passion.”
Mauro started her first business selling artisanal cheese in her early 20s and was doing fairly well until a mechanical fire damaged her small facility and she didn’t have the savings to come back from it.
She thought of giving up and bartended for a few years but felt lost.
Then, a friend clued her in to the Bragg Farm property in 2012.
The fight to save farming in Vermont
The farm was for sale through the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program, which buys agricultural properties from people leaving farming and sells them to aspiring farmers through an application and bidding process. Once they’ve won the bid and moved in, land trust beneficiaries can never resell it for non-farming use.
It’s all in a big push from the state to get more folks farming and cut down on the burden of unwieldy operating costs. The state also markets agriculture to tourists to visit and enjoy all that hard work.
Still, Mauro’s first year making butter was tough.
“It was a cold winter,” said Mauro. “I was still bartending to make ends meet while trying to get the butter business launched. I didn’t have a lot of firewood, and I was asking myself what I had gotten into.”
Mauro pushed through and said she relied a lot on help and advice from other dairies and farmers and the Vermont Small Business Association. Her long ties to farming, friendliness and camaraderie paid off in this small state.
Now her farm is a mini wonderland of entrepreneurship: There’s a massive barn built in 1909 that she’s slowly renovating, an electrified pen filled with pigs she slaughters herself, and nearly 100 pheasants her boyfriend Sterling Alden raises for local restaurants.
In warm weather, she and Alden often eat outside on a large wooden table covered in a checkered table cloth, an abundance of butter often sitting beside pork from her pigs or vegetables from her garden.
It could have been different. Mauro easily could have been slinging beers behind a bar forever after that fire temporarily destroyed her dream.
“It’s funny how those things in life happen that you think are so hard, and then something really beautiful comes of it, like us sitting here right now, you know? ”
Get your dairy fix in Vermont
Here are a few ways to bring home the butter:
Vermont Cheese Council: There’s a cheese trail map on their website which includes over 40 dairies. The annual Cheesemaker Festival is in August at Shelburne Farms Coach Barn — 1611 Harbor Rd, Shelburne, VT 0548.
Monument Farms — buy the New England favorite coffee milk and more at the farm where Ploughgate gets its cream — 2107 James Rd, Weybridge, VT 05753
Billings Farm and Museum — this running dairy and museum also has draft horses, films and an antique tractor day — 69 Old River Road, Woodstock, VT 05091
Cabot — offers four shops throughout the state complete with free samples. Visitors Center — 2878 Main Street, Cabot, VT 05647