by Carla Occaso
CABOT — What’s better than sliced bread?
That fairly recent way of packaging and selling your favorite pre-sliced cheddar is upping the bottom line in the U.S. cheese industry in general, and helping Vermont dairy farmers in particular.
“People are busy. When they get home, they want their cheese already sliced,” said Nate Formalarie, brand communications manager, in a recent conversation with The Bridge. Pre-sliced cracker-cut cheese comes in a resealable package, so customers can have a slice then reseal the package and put it back in the fridge.
It all came about when Cabot trend watchers noticed how the country’s biggest cheese conglomerate, Kraft, was gravitating toward pre-sliced cheese. So Cabot tested the waters by sending whole chunks of cheese to a third party to slice, package and distribute.The result? A 25 percent increase in sales for pre-sliced cheese.
So the company decided to invest in equipment. Now, after months of testing and tweaking, Cabot has its own cut-and-wrap facility and can make the cracker-cuts in-house. Pre-sliced sandwich-size cheese is also produced in the Cabot facility. “We moved some things around in our current facility,” Formalarie said. “Production people are already doing it. They learned a new machine. We are pretty excited about it. We are hoping it takes off.”
This is an important move in an economic climate where dairy farmers have been struggling. Cabot Cooperative is owned by 1,100 farms, 240 of which are in Vermont. Milk prices are currently low, which has put a strain on farmers. “So our focus is on making those products as best we can and to return money to the farm,” Formalarie said, adding that anyone who works at Cabot shares the mission of getting the most value out of their products.
The company grows about 2 to 3 percent per year, Formalarie said.
Whey Protein Powder
In another act of inspiration and innovation, rather than spread the whey as waste on the fields of the Northeast Kingdom, Cabot is turning the whey into protein powder. Whey is a byproduct of the cheese-making process — the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained. It is also, according to Formalarie, where all the protein is. The company condenses the liquid whey, then dries it into a powder form.
The company has recently started parlaying this former waste material into cash by selling it, both wholesale as an ingredient to food manufacturers, and through retail outlets to health-conscious customers. As an ingredient, whey protein powder can be used in everything from granola bars to dog food.
It is also hugely popular in the retail fitness market. Whey protein powders are marketed heavily to both weightlifters and to people trying to lose weight. The product is often purchased in a large package and put in smoothies. Cabot has been selling whey powder for the past year in the Northeast to test its popularity.
“Whey is a big growth product for us,” he said. “It was an investment we made to bring more money to our farmers. We are able to use another part of that milk that is coming into our creamery. It is a value-added product that helps bring more profits.”
Making powdered whey also has a positive environmental impact. Since the water is being removed from the whey to put it into powdered form, that water can then be used to clean the plant rather than just go down the drain or on the farmer’s fields. “We are reducing our strain on that well system in Cabot,” Formalarie said. He added that “the story on the farm side is that it is using milk to its fullest. Every part of the milk is creating revenue and allowing farmers to keep farming.”