By Larry Floersch
Tractor-trailer trucks with the familiar red, white, and green logo for Cabot cheese are a common sight on the roads and highways of Central Vermont. The large number of them is all the more impressive when compared to Cabot’s tiny population of just around 1,500, as is the vast size of the entire Cabot Creamery Co-operative—which includes farms and facilities across the state.
On its 100th anniversary, it is good to remember it all began in the small town of Cabot back in 1919, when farming was hard, prices low, and each farm produced more milk than it could sell. In April of that year, 94 dairy families in the Cabot area joined together to form the Cabot Farmers Co-operative Creamery. Each farmer put up $5 per cow and a cord of wood to fuel the boiler. In total they amassed $3,700, purchased the village creamery in Cabot (built in 1893), and began producing butter from surplus milk under the brand name “Rosedale,” which they shipped along with fluid milk to the cities down country.
As the nation’s population shifted over the next decades to a more urban-based existence, the Cabot Farmers Creamery Co-operative thrived. And that was without what would become the co-operative’s signature product—cheddar cheese. The co-operative didn’t hire its first cheesemaker until 1930. By 1960, the Cabot co-operative’s membership reached 600 farm families, and the co-op was marketing its high-quality cheeses and butter under the Cabot name.
The 1980s and ’90s were hard times in the dairy industry. Dairy farms were shutting down and co-ops were collapsing. Cabot, on the other hand, was expanding the distribution of its butter and cheeses and looked as though it could weather the storm. But by 1992 Cabot, too, was on the verge of bankruptcy, so the Cabot Farmers Co-operative Creamery merged with Agri-Mark—a then struggling Massachusetts-based co-op of 1,800 farms in the six New England states and New York. In the move, Cabot was reincorporated as Cabot Creamery Co-operative, Inc., and became a wholly owned subsidiary of Agri-Mark. In 2008, there were about 400 farms in Vermont that were members of Agri-Mark.
Today, the Agri-Mark/Cabot dairy co-op is one of the largest suppliers of milk in New England, marketing more than 300 million gallons each year for 1,200 of the region’s dairy farm families. The co-operative owns and operates four dairy plants: two in Vermont (Cabot and Middlebury), one in Massachusetts (West Springfield), and one in New York (Chateaugay). The co-op also operates a large cut-and-wrap operation in Cabot. The dairy plant in Cabot, however, continues to be the hub of specialty cheddar production.
In 1989, the Cabot Creamery Co-operative took first place in the cheddar category at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The rest, as they say, is history. The Cabot co-op has consistently won award after award for its cheeses and other dairy products every year since 1998. In 2018, for example, Cabot won four first place awards, three second place awards, and nine third place awards for its cheeses, sour cream, yogurt, and butter at three separate national cheese and dairy competitions.
Cabot has also tried to keep pace with the explosion in artisanal cheesemaking in and outside of the state, according Jen Neary, director of marketing and integrated services for Cabot. “Our more ‘artisanal’ lines, such as our Clothbound or our Centennial Cheddar, which are aged longer and in smaller batches, are certainly part of the artisanal movement that we’re seeing now, and we’re excited to be a part of that.” Nor does she see them as competition, adding, “We love and support artisanal cheesemakers, including other co-ops, small dairy farmers, and other cheesemakers who also got their start in Vermont. We have close partnerships with folks such as Vermont Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm, and some of our farmers even make their own cheeses and other dairy products.”
She also points to the cheeses in the Founders’ collection as examples. “They are made from the original recipes created by our founding farmers in 1919. So when you include our waxed cheddars, we have had artisanal cheeses at Cabot for a very long time.”
Neary points out, however, that Cabot currently is focusing more on convenience products, such as a line of pre-cut slices that are cracker size and has plans to expand their convenience line beyond cracker-cut slices. They are also updating their packaging in honor of the centennial. “Our new look celebrates our farmers’ unwavering commitment to award-winning quality,” said Neary.