Say Cheese

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

Vt. Couple Enjoys Value-Added Side of Family Dairy Business

HIGHGATE CTR., Vt. — Dawn Boucher bought the black Chevy Chevette in 1985, two years before she married Dan on a frigid Vermont Valentine’s Day.

Well into the Clinton years, muffler and timing belt issues plagued the Chevette, until it eventually earned its final tow to the junkyard.

“We were tired of being poor,” Dawn said more recently, while seated with Dan at their Gore Road farm, in Highgate. “And I think our family was getting tired of homemade gifts.”

After the car died, Dawn brainstormed ways she could work on Dan’s generations-old dairy farm, which he was running with his brother, Denis. Maybe she could grow grapes for nearby Boyden Valley Winery, or raise veal for Vermont Quality Meats.

To afford Internet access, she wrote for a local newspaper.

Then their basement flooded.

The Bouchers had mulled farm diversification and saw it thrive when they took a sustainable-agriculture tour in Vermont. However, when they visited Orb Weaver Farm in New Haven, Vt. — where two women make and sell cheese from six cows — their prospects seemed realistic.

“When we saw something on that scale, at Orb Weaver Farm, we knew we could do it,” Dan said. “It was the scope. The building was small, and they weren’t using a lot of milk.

“When you walk into a Shelburne Farms (a 1,400-acre working farm in Shelburne, Vt.), you think, I can’t do this.’ But, at Orb Weaver Farm, they were eking out a living with cows and milk and a vegetable stand in the summer.”

The Bouchers took their 140 milk cows — still the size of their herd today — and found Dawn an extra income. Today, she and Dan own and operate the tasty, value-added side of Boucher Family Farm, where they produce and distribute cheese, beef, meat, eggs and sunflower oil — all from a 1,000-acre tract.

Dan cares for the animals. Dawn makes the high-quality cheese, the specialty at Boucher Farm. They offer five different cheeses — including the popular Tomme Collins and aptly named “Gore Dawn Zola” — that are hits at the annual Burlington, Vt., Farmers Market each summer.

“It was a no-brainer to bring cheeses to that farmers market,” Dan said. “We found out what people wanted, so we started giving it to them.”

“That’s the key,” Dawn said. “Give them what they want.”

Boucher Family Farm cheese — under the name Green Mountain Blue Cheese — is a staple in restaurants throughout New England. Dawn watches cheese trends to anticipate what’s popular.

The Bouchers also sell their products via the honor system — literally, a box for customers to put their money — from inside the small cheese-processing facility that Dan and Denis built for $50,000 in 1998. They opened a year later.

With help from Dan and his friend, Myron Collins — the “Collins” in “Tomme Collins” — Dawn makes about 350 pounds of cheese a week, while listening to OutQ on SiriusXM Radio, because it plays a lot of Partridge Family.

“It’s really up my ally,” she said. “It’s fun!”

Green Mountain Blue Cheese is aged from 60 to 90 days, at minimum, to one year.

The Bouchers also process about six to eight beef cows a year, each dressing out at a whopping 800 to 900 pounds. They also have 18 pigs, chickens and a 10-acre sunflower field, for their oil.

Dawn’s other business duties are billing and marketing, for which she has a sharply unique but ultimately successful three-pronged plan:

1. “You can’t get cheese unless I like you.”

2. “You don’t pay? First time, shame on you. Second time, shame on me. And no cheese for you!” (This always sparks allusions to the famous Soup Nazi on “Seinfeld.”)

3. And, finally, “I don’t call you back if I don’t know you.” (To which she points to the pushy Ohio woman that called Boucher Family Farm for directions on how to make a hay-bale snowman, because she saw a photo of one on Dawn’s blog.)

“The real funny part about Dawn’s marketing plan,” Dan said, “is that she won’t get caller ID.”

The Bouchers have an employee, Amber Blodgett, 27, also of Highgate, who assumes all herdsperson responsibilities, including milking, when they’re at the farmers market. Denis’ responsibilities are feeding, equipment maintenance and fieldwork.

Dan’s grandfather, Rene, started the Boucher farm in the 1940s. Dan’s father, Gilbert — who still lives across the road with Dan’s mother, Gemma — was the youngest of 11 children and assumed the farm when he was a teen, because his parents were elderly.

Both in their late forties, and Franklin County natives, Dan and Dawn enjoy their time working together as a couple.

“The path of least resistance is the whole model of our business,” Dawn said. “Where is the opportunity to fill a hole, and how can we do that?”

That philosophy keeps them busy. Since they opened in 1999, they have been on three vacations: South Carolina, about 20 years ago; Cape Cod, for two days in 2012; and New Orleans last June. For fun, they gather with friends each Sunday.

“We’re focused on trying to provide an interesting life, and we love doing what we do,” Dawn said. “There will be an exit for us, but there is no plan. Right now, we’re banking money, which is unusual in this economy.”

For Dan, coming from a traditional dairy upbringing, “Not being the boss has been one of the more difficult challenges.” Today, he still doesn’t know how to make cheese.

“And when you go to a farmers market and ask for a higher price than what you might be used to, as a farmer,” he said, “it toys with your pride a bit.”

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

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