It's morning in Vermont. You pad downstairs, open up the fridge, and pour yourself a nice big glass of . . . yogurt? Yep, you read it right. If Gert and Arda Schut of Millborne Farm have their way, that scenario will soon be playing itself out in kitchens all over the state. In August, the Shoreham dairy farmers started marketing a drinkable yogurt beverage similar to Indian "lassi" or Middle Eastern "kefir."
"In Holland they drink it like orange juice; it's really popular for breakfast," explains Arda Schut, 46, in lightly accented English.
So far it hasn't been all that difficult to sell Millborne Farm Yogurt Drink to Americans -- at least, not to Vermont customers who've gotten a taste of it at stores like Burlington's City Market and Healthy Living in South Burlington. At the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop, produce worker Brian Slavin and his 4-year-old daughter are sold on the stuff. "This may sound kind of out there," Slavin says, "but when I drink it, it really feels like I'm drinking nutrition. It has an amazing freshness to it
. . . People are buying it, too." In three months, sales along the Route 7 corridor between Rutland and Burlington have grown to 1000 bottles a week.
Sold in 12-ounce single-serving bottles, the yogurt drink comes in three flavors: strawberry, vanilla and orange. Orange turns out to be the most popular, perhaps because it tastes like a melted creamsicle. All three flavors are free of any artificial taste, and the drink isn't as thick, sweet or filling as a yogurt smoothie -- its closest American equivalent.
The Schuts spent two years perfecting the production process, tasting different flavors and trying to get the consistency of the yogurt just right. "Watching yogurt grow is a really boring process," notes Gert, 44, a tall man with a quick smile.
The Schuts were dairy-driven when they left Holland for the U.S. in 1984. Neither came from a farming family -- Gert's dad drove a truck, Arda's parents ran a menswear shop -- but they knew they wanted to work the land. In Holland, a restrictive milk quota system and a shortage of arable land make emigration a necessity for many aspiring farmers, who typically find cheap turf in Eastern Europe or follow their ancestors to the wide-open spaces of North America.
The first stop for the Schuts was a small dairy farm in southwest Connecticut. After a few years, development pressure drove them north. They farmed in Chester before buying 500-acre Millborne Farm in Shoreham, with its panoramic views of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. More importantly, they found a community for which dairy farming is still part of the fabric of daily life.
But the timing could have been better: After the collapse of the Northeast Dairy Compact in 2001, making a living from farming got a whole lot harder. Gert grimly recalls 2002 and '03 as "really tough years. The milk prices just dropped. We had a choice: We could follow the trend and add more cows, or diversify."
The Schuts didn't want to expand their herd, so they started looking for a more lucrative "value-added" product to make from their milk. They considered cheese first, but found co-op shelves already stocked with local cheddars, jacks, blues, colbys -- even mozzarellas. They also found that no one was making drinkable yogurt -- a healthful dairy beverage that is popular almost everywhere else in the world. Believing the product would eventually catch on here, they decided to take a gamble.
Trailblazing has its challenges. The Schuts struggled to find the right equipment, most of which was secondhand, and then modified it to fit their needs. They agonized over temperatures and pH with experts from the University of Vermont's Food and Nutrition department. Surveying a spotlessly clean, cold room replete with gleaming, stainless steel machinery, Gert explains, "We know about milking cows, but making yogurt is a different story."
When milk leaves the cow, it's filtered and pasteurized at 170 degrees, and then cooled for the reintroduction of yogurt-forming bacteria: S. Thermo-philus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus and L. Casei, to name a few. Over the next three or four hours, these "bio-live" bacteria multiply and transform the milk into a thick, creamy mush. Then fruit juices or flavoring are added, along with three extra probiotics -- the "good" bacteria touted by health nuts. After the homogenizer thins the yogurt out to a drinkable consistency, it's piped to the filler bowl, where the bottles are filled and capped.
The milk couldn't be fresher. "Ten minutes from cow to vat," Gert says proudly.
But it's not organic. "For us, it's about cow health," Gert says, explaining that if one of his animals gets sick, he wants to be able to administer antibiotics, which are verboten on an organic operation. Precautions are taken to prevent any pharmaceuticals from entering the milk supply. The label on the yogurt reads "all natural and probiotic." Such distinctions are important to customers. The Schuts have learned all about that since Millborne Farm Yogurt Drink made its debut at the Addison County Field Days last summer. "We'd never had any marketing experience," Gert admits. Distribution, too, is new territory. Monument Farms and Thomas Dairy have the western side of the state covered, but the Schuts have yet to find anyone to bring their product to Central Vermont.
Could drinkable yogurt one day replace Ben & Jerry's ice cream as Vermont's most distinctive dairy product? Savvy as they are, the Schuts appear to be somewhat reluctant ag entrepreneurs. "If it takes off, that's great," says Gert. But really, he adds, "We're doing this for the farm."