by Diane Wyatt
When we first got Clover in September 1998, she was barely 5 days old. She fit nicely in the back of our minivan, looking bony and frail and in my uneducated opinion, rather small for a baby cow considering her mother had to weigh close to a thousand pounds. She was awfully cute though, and I couldn't help but feel pride welling up inside of me as I realized I was to become the proud mother of this needy little thing who was anxiously trying to get its next meal by sucking on my fingers. I paid the Jersey farmer $100 and took mental notes on what he told me she required for food, care, housing, etc. At least I had the housing part figured out since I had already divided our chicken coop so she could be on one side while her chicken companions were on the other. Everything else I needed to learn would have to come from the only 2 books I found on raising a family cow.
After a couple of months, the vet informed me on his first visit that sooner rather than later only half of Clover would fit in the section of the chicken coop she occupied. I hadn't known how fast cows grew, and he was certainly right because by the time we provided her with different living quarters, she could barely turn around in the stall.
By the following summer, we had built a small insulated barn that had two 10' x 10' box stalls, a stanchion that we could lock her into for milking, and a loft upstairs to store some hay. We fenced in 2 large pastures and put up 600 bales of hay that we purchased from a local farmer, all before Clover turned a year old. I read and reread those 2 books a dozen times as Clover grew into a fine heifer and then a mother cow the following summer, when she gave birth to a heifer calf at the age of 2. That's when the real fun began for us.
One Saturday while vending at our local farmers' market, I was contemplating this dilemma and I happened to be watching another vendor selling her goat milk cheese by the dozens. People were waiting in line to purchase her farmstead artesian cheeses, dill and garlic chevre, tomato and basil fromage blanc, and her gourmet feta. I was amazed at the amount of traffic this booth was generating as we sat there rubbing our hands together trying to keep warm on that early spring morning, the kickoff day of the market season. We were permanent vendors at this market, selling everything we could grow to earn a newly acquired living as farmers.
I first learned to milk by hand and did that for a month before getting a small portable milking machine, which we still use today. Clover was giving us around 4 gallons of milk a day and I learned to make everything imaginable with the excess milk, such as aged cheeses including Monterey Jack, Gouda, and cheddar; as well as mozzarella, cottage cheese, sour cream, ice cream, butter and yogurt. Even then I still had more milk than I could handle, and finding uses for it was becoming a real challenge.
We grew all types of fruits and vegetables which included lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, green beans, brussels sprouts and corn; apples, cherries and plums; blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, juneberries and elderberries; and we even planted 200 strawberry plants that would potentially yield a few hundred pounds of strawberries. That was fine for the months of July and August when these things were in season, but in May our table was skimpy and had little to offer to customers except for a few dozen eggs, some maple syrup, and a few extra potted tomato plants that we didn't need.
While observing this cheese producer in full swing, an idea came into my mind. What if we used the excess milk and our maple syrup to make maple yogurt we could sell to our customers? My sister, being the conservative one in the family, thought I was crazy since she and I both knew we would not be able to get the necessary license we needed with just one cow's worth of milk. I, being the irrational and impulsive one, told her not to worry since we didn’t know if it would sell anyway.
My wheels were still spinning so I talked to the market manager who was very supportive of the idea of selling yogurt. She advised me to contact the Department of Agriculture to obtain the necessary licenses but in the meantime gave us permission to sell as long as we knew we were solely accountable for any fines, law suits, etc. that may be infringed upon us; this was also stated on the farmers’ market liability release forms that we signed at the beginning of the season. She told me about others who were selling dairy products at the market and advised me to talk to them about the licensing. I was surprised to learn about other people who were marketing their products without being licensed and this confirmed my decision to go ahead with the plan.
By the following week I was ready with the first batch of yogurt. From the very first day, it took off by storm. By midsummer we were selling over two hundred 6-ounce cups of yogurt, including maple and fruited varieties made with our own fruits and berries. This continued every Saturday through October, and because of the great success we signed up for the winter markets too so we could offer our yogurt to customers year round. We soon realized this small whimsical adventure had become the greater part of our income; with the rising cost of living and 7 people in the family, we could not have survived without it.
Things went quite well for the next couple of years but as the cows were both in their prime milk production, we again had more milk than we could use. So I decided to venture out and sign up for another farmers' market in addition to the one we were attending. We were accepted and despite being new to both this market and the town, we steadily gained customers who loved our yogurt. At both markets, our customers were very supportive and loyal to us in our kitchen-based yogurt business. They knew we were a family who ran a meticulously clean operation and that we loved what we did. They knew we loved our cows and provided the best care we could for them. They could tell that the milk was always fresh and that we paid the utmost attention to detail in handling, pasteurizing, and processing the milk into yogurt. They also knew we were doing this illegally and still they fully supported our business.
Clover was producing a good 4 gallons of milk a day on pasture, but now we needed a second cow in order to have enough milk to supply the demand. That fall, we purchased another Jersey heifer who was due to calve in the spring. She was a registered Jersey who came from the lineage of cows that produced high butterfat and high protein percentages as well as a lot of milk. She calved the next spring and right from the start she was milking 6 gallons a day and steadily increasing. By midsummer, she was giving us 8 gallons of milk per day.
To sum it up, I was devastated. I didn't know what to do except that I had to stop selling yogurt. I had already been a little too bold in venturing out of my hometown selling illegal yogurt in the first place, and to resist the law was something very against the grain of my upbringing as well as my conscience. After talking to some other cheese producers, I was encouraged to offer the yogurt for the remaining season by donation only, while letting the customers know the end was near. I thought my family and I were the only devastated ones until my outraged customers encouraged me to go against the law and fight for my rights. It was very thoughtful and kind but I knew that this particular issue was a lot bigger than I or even a group of small-scale farmers could stand against.
Then the dreaded day came. While selling yogurt at this new market, a dairy inspector came to my booth and told me that it was illegal to sell yogurt without the proper licensing and that I had to stop selling it until I acquired the necessary license to do so. He gave me his card and told me to get in touch with the Department of Agriculture to find out what the requirements were for getting a milk handler's license. I already knew a little of the requirements since I had done some research when we first bought Clover. Besides having to obtain thousands of dollars worth of dairy equipment, I also needed to build a separate building to legally process dairy products, because it’s not legal in Vermont to process yogurt or any dairy product in your home kitchen.
So as far as I could see, that summer marked the end of our yogurt business until... I received a call from a devoted customer and friend who insisted I call the professor of the engineering department at Vermont Technical College. She told me that if anyone could help me, it was him. The following week, I called the professor and found out that he was looking for projects for his students to work on that fall. After we each explained our situation, we joined forces and put the plan into action for his students to build the necessary equipment that would pass the legal requirements of the Dept. of Agriculture. This included a 25 gallon pasteurizer, a water-cooling unit, a can cooler that would chill the raw milk brought in from the barn, a rotary yogurt filling station and a mechanical capper that would cap the yogurt containers. I was emotionally overwhelmed at the unbounded charity I found in the customers who not only supported us throughout the years but also donated to VTC to help fund the project in order for us to become licensed.
I can't begin to describe my feelings when this whole plan went into action. I talked to the students and led them step by step through the process of making yogurt, so they could have an understanding of the legal requirements of the pasteurization process as well as the packaging requirements. They needed to know time and temperature requirements for both cooling the raw milk and heating and incubating the yogurt. They worked tirelessly; designing, fabricating, testing and re-testing, and in 2 semesters they built the needed equipment and had it inspected and approved by the dairy inspector. To say I was amazed is an understatement. My family and I stared almost in disbelief when the equipment was delivered by the professor and his students the following spring.
That was the spring of 2009 and it set the wheels in motion for us to do our part of the requirements, which involved building an addition onto our house. It needed to have 2 separate rooms, one for storing the raw milk and the other for pasteurizing the milk and turning it into yogurt. We also needed to have a bathroom and a dry storage room adjacent to the other rooms. This was no small task by any means even though the entire addition occupied only 360 square feet. It took the greater part of that summer and into the fall to complete the building, which included the drainage and plumbing of 2 multiple bay sinks, 2 hand sinks, a bathroom sink and a toilet; electricity for outlets, lights and 2 exhaust fans, along with the flooring, painting, trim work and extra details that needed attention before the facility could pass the legal inspection.
Today I couldn't be happier. My family and I feel it was Divine Providence that led us through the steps of this whole course and provided us with a living that sustains our family of 6. I won't say it isn't hard work or that I love to get up at 6am when it's below zero in January to milk the cows, but I can say that working the land and managing a small farm is a very satisfying and rewarding way of life for us.
It was not until December 10th, 2009 that the project was completed and I received my milk handler’s license in the mail, which allowed me to legally process, package and sell “Green Mountain Yogurt” anywhere in the state of Vermont.
Eighteen years have gone by since Clover came into our lives and she has now passed away so she couldn't be with us to share in our success story, but her legacy continues. She was the beginning of a journey that led us to where we are today. We will always remember that beautiful Jersey who gave us 6 beautiful calves, over 65,000 lbs of milk, and the sweet beginnings of Green Mountain Yogurt and our new homesteading life on a small-scale farm.
December 2016 Update
Because of the similarity of our name “Green Mountain Yogurt” with Commonwealth Dairy’s “Green Mountain Creamery Yogurt,” and the confusion it has caused with both retailers and customers, we decided it was in everyone’s best interest to change our name.
Our new name is Sweet Cow Yogurt and you will see our new labels coming into the stores soon. The new labels are very similar to the original GMY labels so that you will be able to recognize us with little effort. We will provide new signs when this change takes effect, which will state that we were formerly GMY. We are hoping for a smooth transition and that you will easily recognize our yogurt under the new name.