Ploughgate Creamery: Vermont’s Cultured Butter

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An average summer day at Ploughgate Creamery goes something like this: You’re up at quarter to six to start the churn. An hour later you’ve got golden butter and buttermilk (the latter you feed to the pigs). Next, you divide the butter into three thirty pound batches. The slow churn is what takes some time, and the butter falls in on itself to expel the moisture. Lastly, you hand slap the butter to remove every last bit of moisture, mix with salt, make butter balls, weigh and wrap each individually by hand. That’s 220 lbs of butter a day. 440 pieces. The whole process takes between ten and fourteen hours.

Another day of butter on the books. But wait, don’t forget the outside chores: caring for the animals—rotational grazing requires the cows are moved every few days—the pigs, the one hundred pheasants that recently arrived. You’d also need to tend the big, productive garden and, of course, building maintenance. And as the day winds to a close, don’t forget bookkeeping, sales, filling orders and coordinating with distributors.

It’s not the easiest way to make a living. But easy never really figured into the equation for Marisa Mauro. “I need hard work. It makes me feel confident and accomplished,” she says. “I started farming at fourteen and never looked back.” Hailing from a hardworking family in southern Vermont, Mauro had a circuitous path to farming, an industry that’s near-completely dominated by family businesses handed down from one generation to the next. “My dad was a contractor. He worked hard his whole life, always taking big risks. I’ve gotten my optimism from him. That’s crucial if you want to make a living off the land.”

As a girl, Mauro had dreams of being a vet, so she started working at a sheep dairy. It was at Woodcock Farm that she fell in love with farming—all of it: running tractors, haying, milking, you name it. “I wasn’t good at school and there was a lot of stuff going on with my family. So at sixteen I left home.” In a fortuitous turn of fate, she was able to convince her headmaster to allow her to do her senior semester at Shelburne Farms outside Burlington. She rented an apartment in town and made cheese for six months, writing reports and documenting the process in order to meet her math and science requirements. She graduated.

The next few years she spent out west, working for a cattle rancher on the Crow reservation in southeastern Montana—a “hard experience” that taught her a lot—followed by school in California for herbal medicine. Next she spent over two years years with a Peruvian American goat farmer, getting his business in order and learning about food. This experience ultimately sent her back to Vermont, enrolling as a freshman at Sterling College.

She was twenty-two and moving into the dorms in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. Young, but having seen a lot of the real world, she knew she needed to have an education  to run a business properly. “I had seen all the challenges these ma and pa operations faced. There is a right way to farm. I didn’t want to struggle.” Balancing school while bartending nights and milking sheep on the weekends proved challenging—not your typical freshman college experience.

But after a year she decided she was wasting too much money and figured she learned best on the job anyway. She left school to work for Neil Urie at Bonnieview sheep farm full-time. She made blue cheese and milked the cows. “I loved Neil and his family, but I was making something like six dollars an hour.” One day Neil mentioned an abandoned cheese facility down the road. “It was the end of a work day and Neil brings me a beer, which typically meant that I’d messed something up.” Neil tells her that he’s made an appointment with the owner of the facility. “I walk out of that meeting with a $300 per month lease and the place was ready to go—just needed equipment.”

So she started a creamery. Took a class. Spent a year writing a business plan. She milked jerseys in the winter and sheep in the summer, got $40k from a bank and asked local farmers what she should make. “I’m big on mentors. If you’re respectful, the older generation wants to share what they’ve learned.” Ultimately, the boys at Jasper Hill Farm—largely responsible for the artisanal cheese movement in America—suggested she make something for them. She’d produce and they would buy her green cheese and age it underground. “Farming is all about connection—connection to the land, the animals, and creating a family around what you do. I was one of Jasper Hill’s first producers.”

After four years working six days a week plus selling at the farmer’s market on Sunday—the unspeakable happened. A mechanical fire erupted in the rented facility. Mauro lost everything. Neither she nor the owner had the right insurance. “It was a really tough lesson. I’d worked so hard there, all by myself. Then I got lost for a few years.”

“I’ve found that the biggest shit-storms often bring me to the best places,” says Mauro thoughtfully. In 2012, a friend told her about the Vermont Land Trust—a non-profit environmental group working to conserve productive lands within the state. The Trust has something called a Farm Land Access Program. Mauro rewrote her business plan, submit it, and was selected to buy ag land at a fraction of the market value cost. Enter Bragg Farm.

Bragg Farm, Mauro’s home since 2013, sits high atop a hill in Vermont’s scenic Mad River Valley and looks out over Mount Ellen and Lincoln Peak. There’s a massive, sprawling barn built in1909—Vermont’s most photographed and loved by the community. It’s here that she makes her cultured butter, by introducing beneficial, live bacteria to cream—in the European style. The pasteurized cream is procured from a 4th generation local farm, Monument Valley. “I feel very attached to each piece of butter I make. A lot of time goes into it. It’s artistic, scientific—it means a lot to me.”

Still, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. “Humbling and character building—that’s farming” says Mauro. “I’m doing it right this time and I’m hoping I can pay for it” she says with a smile. “The verdict is still out, but I’m going for it.” With six distributors across the country and relationships with high end restaurants like New York City’s Momofuku, things are looking up. May fortune favor the bold!

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