The Road to Real Cheese Is Processed


What Land O’Lakes’ acquisition of Vermont Creamery means for curd nerds like me

I’m not sure Stop & Shop sources goat cheese from this spot in the Cevennes, let alone Vermont. Maybe now they will?

“A pound and a half of Land O’Lakes white American, sliced as thinly as you can.”

“But ma’am,” the deli clerk sighed, “they’ll all stick together.”

“Don’t worry about it. As thinly as you can, please.”

He shrugged, turned around, took one step, and vanished.

As a seven-year-old I was too short to see over the counter. My only chance for a status update was to squint through the glass, and I could barely make out his movement behind the bulwark of meat and cheese slabs crowding the case.

After an eternity he returned, pinching a nearly transparent square-ish slice between thumb and index finger. Holding it far away from his face as if it carried a rare disease, not believing this is what we truly wanted, he proceeded with the ask.

“This thin enough?”

Without hesitating my mother delicately scooped it up with the palm of her hand and lowered it to my eye level. I took it from there.

As a curd enthusiast today, it takes many by surprise that my love affair started 30+ years ago with processed cheese. From obsessively separating and restacking each slice of that Land O’Lakes American to chunking up Velveeta for my mother’s scalloped potatoes, processed cheese and cheese product (yes there’s a difference, just ask J. Kenji López-Alt and Serious Eats) were an essential part of my everyday upbringing. While my tastes have evolved over the years, I still enjoy a good queso.

So when my cheese-insider friend Hans Kunisch told me Land O’Lakes acquired Vermont Creamery, I saw my processed past and present punditry converging.

I was excited to see a quality outfit like Vermont Creamery get a payday for their decades of pioneering work. After all, they practically created the commercial goats’ milk game in the U.S.. They also gave birth to the legendary Bonne Bouche — the closest any American cheesemaker has come to replicating the ash-ripened goat goodness of Loire Valley, my favorite of all European raw-milk creations.

And yet, as is the case with many of these transactions, I couldn’t help but reflect on the simple fact that a processed cheese-manufacturer was gobbling up an artisanal gem. Was this good, bad, or neither — and for whom?

Me in fromageries across Europe. Not sure these spots carry cheese product.

The quick, optimistic answer: it’s great for everyone.

Vermont Creamery will remain a separate brand, independently operated, and maintain B Corp certification. Every employee will be staying. At a higher level, their iconic co-founder Allison Hooper states: “As we experience unprecedented growth, we need a partner who can bring the resources and expertise necessary to help us realize our vision and the potential of our business.”

For Land O’Lakes, it’s a layup: “We love their brand and would like to help bring it to even more people,” says Chris Policinski, its President and CEO.

And for consumers, it should mean more Vermont Creamery products in more places.

There’s good reason for this outlook given recent activity like Unilever’s acquisition of Seventh Generation and Danone’s purchase of WhiteWave (which includes Horizon Organic, Silk soy products, and Earthbound Farms, America’s largest grower of organic produce). One can look even further back to see the longer-term impact of similar deals: since The Coca-Cola Company bought Honest Tea outright in 2011, the beverage giant has fueled growth — in both distribution of lower-sugar drinks and purchasing power of organic ingredients — that might not have been possible otherwise:

Back in 2007 our drinks were sold in about 15,000 stores, predominantly natural food stores on the coasts. Today our drinks are available in more than 125,000 accounts, including Wendy’s, Subway, and Chik-fil-A. And our purchasing of organic ingredients has grown commensurately: we bought 700,000 pounds of organic ingredients in 2007, having grown to more than 15 million pounds in 2015. — Seth Goldman for World Positive

When new friends discover my passion for cheese, I relish the moment (and this happens nearly every time) where I’m asked how this love was borne. The look on their face when I tell them — “A combination of Land O’Lakes white American and Velveeta…” — is hilarious.

It also makes me wonder if my cheese curiosity would have been piqued earlier had I started sooner on the real stuff (beyond basic cheddars, havartis, etc.). My exposure to the fancier stuff, and appreciation for the farmers and cheesemakers, simply didn’t come until later in life.

And so it gives me hope that with more deals like this, more people will engage with quality brands like Vermont Creamery and Cowgirl Creamery (also recently sold, to Emmi), and ultimately drive consumer passion for and curiosity with farmers building real business with real food.

Selfie with a goat in the Pyrenees.

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