Value-added products have kept this farm thriving
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Since the 1940s, the Boucher family has farmed its 1,000-acre property on Gore Road in Highgate Center, but its roots are in Quebec — 14 generations back. The current generation consists of Daniel Boucher, his wife, Dawn Morin-Boucher, pictured, and his brother Denis and his wife, Deborah.
A couple of years ago, Highgate Center farmers Daniel and Dawn Morin-Boucher sat down to have a conversation about the future. They decided that the income from sales of their cheese and farmers’ market ventures was good enough that they could give up Dan’s income from the farm’s main business, that of fluid milk production, and hire a herd manager.
After discussing it with his brother Denis, who, with his wife, Deborah, co-owns the farm with Dan and Dawn, they hired Amber Blodgett. “It was just easier on the farm to not have to pay me and Amber, also,” says Dan. “So all our income now comes from the farmers’ market and cheese sales.”
The move allowed him to dedicate more time to their value-added products, particularly the Boucher Family Farm’s blue cheeses: Madison and the award-winning Gore-Dawn-Zola and Boucher Blue.
This was no quick decision. The value-added product line had been growing since the late 1990s, when Dawn’s car broke down. “We were married in 1987,” she says. “Two years later I went to college — at the time it was CCV with a satellite in St. Albans — and graduated with a liberal arts degree. Two years after that I spent quite a few years doing the homestead thing: growing all our own food, making all our own food. Then my car broke down and we decided, Ooh, somebody’s got to come up with a job here.”
Dawn set about trying to figure out how to create a job for her on the farm. “That was when Vermont Quality Meats was getting started,” she says, “and they needed veal producers. We had plenty of Holstein bull calves to raise, so that’s how we got started in the value-added business.”
She began doing market research on cheeses, she says, laughing as she adds, “We didn’t find out it was market research until after I did it.” For over a year, she made monthly trips to price cheeses at Cheese Outlet, Onion River Co-op, and Shelburne Supermarket.
“I bought every cheese we’d never tried before,” she says, “and noted what the retail price was. We decided we’d make a cheese we wouldn’t mind eating, in case we couldn’t sell it. We found these beautiful blues from Spain and England and said, ‘$24–$25 a pound: How does that translate to what we can sell it for wholesale?’”
They decided to try some test batches. “We got started before I had instruction,” says Dawn. “We were in business maybe a year before the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese started its classes.” She signed up, took the basics, and learned to make other kinds of cheese.
Dawn was not a farmer until she married Dan. A native of South Burlington, she grew up in Bakersfield, the oldest of three children of the postmaster and the town clerk. She was working as a property and casualty insurance agent at A.N. Derringer when she met Dan through one of her teammates on the company’s softball team. They married a little over a year later.
Dan’s farming roots run back 14 generations to the time when Quebec was known as New France. Boucherville is named for his ancestor Pierre Boucher, a French and Indian War hero whose statue can be found on the grounds of the National Assembly Building in Quebec City. Rene Boucher, Dan and Denis’ grandfather, moved the farm to Vermont in the 1940s. The grandsons and their wives bought the farming business and 200 of the farm’s 1,000 acres from their parents.
“This is like the Boucher compound,” says Dawn. “Two uncles lived next door once. They’ve both died. Denis is next door the other way, and their brother Patrick is in the third house and the parents, across the road, in the Quebec way.” Patrick works with his parents in the fertilizer business, and a fourth brother, Giles, lives in Massachusetts.
The farm is a poster-worthy example of bucolic beauty, the result, says Dawn, of the elder Bouchers’ insistence. “My in-laws always told us, ‘Don’t dress like ragamuffins and don’t keep the place like ragamuffins.’”
Dan, the oldest of the Boucher brothers, did not originally want to farm. “Because we grew up on the farm,” he says, “we were made to work, regardless, through high school. I thought I wanted a break.”
He entered a two-year electrical engineering program at New Hampshire Technical Institute, graduating in 1983. Not wanting to work in New Hampshire, he returned to northern Vermont, but couldn’t find work. “I applied to half a dozen places,” he says, “and in the meantime was working on the farm a little bit. When I came back, things had changed.”
Patrick and Giles, the two younger brothers, were heading off to St. Michael’s for college and there was a void to be filled. “Denis is the only one who didn’t go to college,” says Dan. “He stuck right here and kind of took the leadership role. I didn’t have a problem with that.”
Three years after he came back, he met Dawn.
Dan is in charge of the dairy part of the business and helps with the field work, “and of course most of the grunt work in the cheese plant,” he says. “Denis does the feeding in the morning; takes care of the ration. Then he does all the other stuff: maintains equipment, calls the shots in the field as to what we’re planting, mowing. Right now we’re combining corn. Denis has the final say.
Denis also does troubleshooting for liquid-fertilizer customers of their parents’ fertilizer business. “Dad’s a salesman. He comes in and says, ‘Yeah, we can set you up,’ then goes away. Denis decides how to set that up. He’s done that for several outfits.”
All the cheeses are made from raw milk, which bypasses the tank and is pumped directly from the milking parlor into the cheese vat. What started out as 100 pounds of cheese a month has grown to 300 pounds a week. “Black River and Provisions take our stuff,” says Dan, “and we have no idea where it goes.”
“I purchase both his Gore-Dawn-Zola and the Boucher Blue, probably between 40 and 50 wheels a week,” says Jay Kerner, cheese and dairy buyer at Black River Produce. “I buy and own the cheese. I don’t package it; I sell full wheels back out and distribute them throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts. There’s a certain amount of trust, because I can’t go back and say, ‘We can’t sell these wheels.’”
Kerner’s customers are mostly restaurants, then retail markets that cut it and wrap it for sale, often using labels or stickers designed by Dawn, who has had an interest in art since youth.
Not long after Blodgett was hired as herd manager, she expressed an interest in making butter. The Bouchers bought a pasteurizer — their first — for that purpose. Along with other items at farmers’ markets, they have been selling their Red Barn Butter (from a few Guernseys, a couple of Brown Swiss, and the Holsteins, says Dan).
“We’re having a pizza oven built on a trailer for parties,” says Dawn. “We have two to three a year for clients. We also have a Caja China (a Cuban pig oven) coming. When we have a chicken or turkey slaughter day, all our workers are volunteers, and afterward we feed them — as long as it’s not chicken.”
The farm also sells pork and a selection of smoked pork items, which are processed by Brault’s Market & Slaughterhouse in Troy.
The Bouchers deliver their animals to Brault’s, which slaughters and processes them for sale. Kathy Couture is Dawn’s contact at Brault’s.
A Brault by birth, Couture has been with the three-generation family business 12 years. “We’ve been doing business with the Bouchers at least 10 years,” she says. “They’re really good business people, very well-organized. And they make really great blue cheese.”
The Braults’ slaughter business has grown in recent years, as the Vermont brand has grown. “The added value is there now,” Couture says.
Like many farmers, the Bouchers have very little time off. Dan recently bought a bow for deer hunting. “My brother has been shooting bow for a number of years, and now that I’ve shown an interest, we go out on weekends on these shoots.”
Dawn mentions their two days visiting Quebec City this summer, where she had never been. “We got to go to a nice tattoo shop,” she says, adding, “We both have fleurs-de-lis from New Orleans and dragons from Cape Cod.”
She says the smartest thing she ever did was quit her job. “With commodity pricing like milk, we don’t set the price, but accept what we’re given. With our product, we’re setting ourselves up for the market. That way, you can make some money instead of losing money every year and wonder what’s going wrong.
“You’ve got to help yourself and find out what else you can do.” •