ST. ALBANS, Vt. — When Leon Berthiaume was a child in Swanton, his parents’ dairy farm was about 6 miles from the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery. So trips to the co-op were regular for little Leon and his father, Francis.
Decades later, Leon Berthiaume is traveling to the St. Albans co-op daily — for work. He is the CEO of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, and he is proud to hold that position in an important year for the business.
This year, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Cabot Creamery Cooperative both turn 100. Cabot started with about 95 members when it opened in Vermont’s Mad River Valley in 1919. The St. Albans co-op had 25 members when it began operating on Federal Street in St. Albans — in the same spot where it stands today.
Berthiaume and Elizabeth Davis, spokesperson for Cabot, have been busy co-planning events for their respective centennials while understanding that their co-ops — along with others across the U.S. — are in the midst of challenging times. With that in mind, both co-ops are looking for ways to adjust to a shaky dairy industry.
“As a co-op, we exist to help the members do together what they cannot do individually,” Davis said. “We need to continue to expand the sales and profitability of our brands for our farmer-owners, and we need to generate higher levels of profit more consistently.”
Vermont was once home to many member-and-farmer-owned co-ops. They provided services and profit shares or equity to their partners, and they gave dairy farmers a sense of unity and independence. Perhaps most importantly, though, co-ops gave farmers more control over their product.
As decades passed and several co-ops either merged or closed, the St. Albans and Cabot co-ops continued to grow and diversify, while keeping their members in mind.
One of Cabot’s biggest turning points, according to Davis, was adding cheese to its butter line in 1985. Cabot’s award-winning cheeses are now considered some of the best in the country and the world.
Furthermore, a 1992 merger with Agri-Mark allowed Cabot to invest millions of dollars into new facilities. Cabot also merged with New York’s Chateaugay Cooperative in 2003, which allowed Cabot to acquire another cheese-making facility in Chateaugay. Cabot then expanded its cheese-making capacity and bought the McCadam brand of New York Cheddar and other cheeses.
“We were able to build a new, state of the art cheddar cheese plant in Middlebury, retrofitted our other facilities and started making flavored cheddars, one of the first in the country to do so,” Davis said. “We also invested in a whey protein plant, which allowed us to further expand cheese production. These changes reinvigorated our cooperative business, allowing us to generate millions of dollars in profits for our farmer-owners.”
Cabot’s brands are still growing, and “the millions of dollars in investments they have made over the years in these brands and plants and equipment are starting to pay off,” Davis said. Sales are expanding annually, and in 2018, Cabot set a record for cheese sold “during a very difficult dairy marketplace,” Davis said.
Farther north, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery attributes part of its growth and success to an expansion of membership services to farmers in New York and New Hampshire. The St. Albans co-op also has worked closely with Dairy Farmers of America to form new partnerships with groups such as CROPP/Organic Valley, and the move has helped the co-op access various markets.
In 2013, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery opened a new, 19,000-square-foot store — with a fake, life-sized cow out front. The store — a far cry from the 10-by-10-foot structure that originally stood on the co-op property in 1919 — marked the first major project at the co-op since construction of a 64-foot evaporator in 1985.
In 2014, the St. Albans co-op invested between $13 and $14 million in a new dryer and packaging equipment, which “bolstered sales,” Berthiaume said. That same year, the co-op purchased McDermott’s, a local milk-hauling company that had been family owned for 80 years. It was a “very logical action,” Berthiaume said.
“Each of these changes benefited the entire industry,” he said. “We can’t forget that our facility is part of a larger system that relies on plants like ours to serve customers throughout New England and New York, as well as balance milk. When a plant invests in new equipment, there is a gain to the overall system of farms, cooperatives, processors and customers.”
In 2008, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery averaged approximately 495 member farmers. At the end of 2018, it had 350.
The picture is the same for Cabot: It had 1,296 member-farms in 2008 and has 875 today. However, Davis said, in 2015 Cabot closed its membership due to the surplus of milk in the region and within the co-op. As a result, membership declined but all Cabot members can now produce as much milk as they want, despite the loss of members.
As both co-ops have watched member farmers close their doors during the last five years, while milk prices have worsened, their leaders have had to develop new strategies for success. For example, they’re making program adjustments in St. Albans and have embarked on some pilot projects that have provided some of their members with higher premiums.
The same conversations are happening at Cabot, and they’re looking to new products, such as cheese cubes for dogs, as ways for their members to enter new markets.
“We continue to prudently invest on their behalf,” Davis said of Cabot member farmers. “In 2018 we finished building a new $21 million dryer at our plant in West Springfield, Massachusetts, that will allow the co-op to handle the additional volume of milk produced by members. Previously, we spent millions of dollars each year handling excess milk. We have also been developing new convenience-based products like cracker cuts and single serve cheddar slices.”
Management and staff at the St. Albans and Cabot co-ops have lots of hard work ahead of them this year, but they will find time to play, too. After all, a 100th birthday is a big deal, so there are celebrations in the works.
This fall, Cabot will host an “Open Farm Sunday.” On one Sunday, 20 Cabot farm families will open their doors so that the public can visit and learn about dairy farming and the Cabot co-op. The free event will include farm tours, cheese samples, a meal and more. Other activities could include corn mazes, hay rides and pumpkin patches, depending on the host farm.
“We are proud of the past 100 years and look forward to the next 100 with anticipation,” Davis said. “We have an active young farmer program within the co-op and hope they will be the foundation of the Northeast dairy industry for many years to come.”
In St. Albans, the mayor’s office has held a photo contest to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the co-op, and the city has displayed banners to that effect, too. Another St. Albans company, 14th Star Brewery, made a milk stout for the co-op’s 100th, and Ben & Jerry’s — still the co-op’s biggest customer with a plant just a mile away — made a special ice cream flavor for the co-op’s annual meeting in February. The co-op’s popular Holiday Tractor Parade will have a 100th anniversary theme later this year, too.
“It is a true honor and testament to our members’ trust in St. Albans to reach the 100th year milestone,” Berthiaume said.