Vt. ag officials push to expand local dairy processing capacity

Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 5:22 PM EST
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EAST ARLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont agriculture officials say they have a plan to help dairy farmers boost their bottom line. The state wants to use federal dollars to increase dairy processing capacity, and in doing so, expand local markets.

The owners of Wilcox Ice Cream believe they have hit their capacity for product production, but the East Arlington company’s owners dream of a sweeter future.

“A processor grant that can help us get new pieces of equipment that would go into our existing plant -- right within our same footprint -- would allow us to make a massive amount more product,” said the company’s Chris Wilcox. She says processing the products is what restricts them from growing and that if they can expand, they would add a new bar-making machine, ice cream machine, and filling machine. Wilcox says this isn’t just for them and that expansion would create a ripple effect. “It would allow us to dramatically increase production and therefore sales, and therefore using more Vermont milk.”

“It’s significantly more money that has been invested in grants than in recent memory,” said Laura Ginsburg with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The agency is soon unlocking $13 million for Vermont milk processing. The USDA money is from a special round of funding appropriated to aid Vermont in response to Horizon Organics’ exit from the region that was prompted by the recent shutdown of a Massachusetts processing plant.

Ginsburg says local processing was identified as a pinch point and she says they believe expanding it will keep more dairy operations afloat. “We want to make sure that the Northeast is positioning itself as being able to process the milk we produce, first and foremost,” she said. “If we have vibrant and diversified processing, farmers have places for their milk to go with assurance.”

The kind of processing that Wilcox Ice Cream is seeking. While they currently purchase dairy from another processor, they say expanded processing will also enable them to cut out the middleman and buy direct from the farmers. “My hope would be that we could enter into contracts with folks that they could get a consistent price for their milk that they could live on,” Wilcox said.

As the funding rolls out, the ag agency is watching to see if a competitive price advantage develops for Vermont milk products. The agency will be accepting applications for this funding starting at the end of January.