WAITSFIELD, Vt. -- Nearly 30 years ago, a handful of enterprising Vermonters realized they could do more with milk than just sell it. And with a little help from the state, they became pioneers in what quickly blossomed into the now behemoth artisanal cheese movement.
Now Vermont officials are exploring a new round of value added agriculture. Because why just raise livestock when instead you could be tapping into the burgeoning world of charcuterie?
"You can buy a pig for $3 a pound. You turn it into cuts and you'll get $4, $5, $6 a pound. Turn it into bacon and you're getting $8, maybe $9 a pound. Turn it into cured products, the world's your oyster," said Robin Morris, founder of the Mad River Food Hub, an incubator for new food businesses that is adding rooms to help producers dry cure meats such as salamis, prosciuttos and sopressatas.
It's actually a pretty simple equation. Produce an agricultural commodity and sell it as a commodity and you get paid commodity prices. It's a formula that requires high volume to be successful, by definition difficult for the sorts of small farmers that populate Vermont. But turn those commodities into sought-after artisanal food products and the game changes.
"We have seen how value-added farm products generate new revenue and jobs in a local community," said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Entrepreneurs around the country are developing value-added food businesses, cured meats are just one example."
In the dairy world, for example, Vermont cheesemakers learned that turning milk into Camembert, chevre, tomme and blue cheese doubled or even tripled its value. But turning that lesson into a model that would boost the state's dairy industry required coordination.
With the help of the state, cheesemakers banded together to form the Vermont Cheese Council, which helps with promotion and education. Meanwhile, the University of Vermont created a first-in-the-nation program, the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, which provides technical assistance to producers and teaches the art and science of cheese.
Now the state hopes to replicate this model for Vermont's livestock industry, with one avenue being charcuterie. Part of the work is already done; it could build on some of the infrastructure already created by the dairy industry, said Chelsea Lewis, senior agricultural development coordinator with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
To better understand how they can foster specialty, locally raised meats, Vermont agriculture officials are coordinating with neighboring New England states to develop training and networking opportunities. And last spring, they traveled to Italy to visit farms, slaughterhouses and butchers to learn from the masters of cured meat. The state even launched a new program to train meat cutters.
Meanwhile, a state task force with representatives from the meat processing industry is looking for ways to expand capacity for meat processing in Vermont.
And then there are the curing rooms. In addition to those being constructed at Mad River Food Hub, in an only-in-Vermont-move Black River Produce, a food distributor in North Springfield, is converting a former Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory into a meat processing plant with curing rooms to produce salamis and prosciuttos.
But the challenge will be in how Vermont competes in an industry already going strong. In many ways, Vermont helped set the standard for the then emerging artisanal cheese movement. Cured meats are different. A study of possible Vermont dry-cured meat products found that while the market is strong and growing, Vermont products need to be distinctive and of consistently high quality to succeed.
Never mind that you have countries like Italy and Spain drawing on centuries of tradition to churn out -- and export -- phenomenal products, but even domestic charcuterie in the U.S. already is going strong. Any city worth a nod from Zagat or Michelin already is awash in chefs and butchers mastering the trade with house-cured meats.
The answer, Vermont officials hope, is local. And they hope to learn from other states.
In North Carolina's hog country, consumer demand for specialty locally raised meat has seen tremendous growth, said Casey McKissick, coordinator of NC Choices, a program launched about eight years ago that promotes local, niche and pasture-based meats. "It's gotten to the point now where it has grown beyond the farmers market," he said.
The program's efforts to retool an old-school industry includes bringing in butchers for training and offering technical assistance to help smaller processors with regulations and marketing.
"To play on a level, a caliber that a large meat company does they've got to be able to deliver consistent quality, standard cut. They've got to deal with smoke and cure and value add like any other big company does," McKissick said, adding that the program is planning a national cured meat conference next year that will offer workshops on whole animal butchery, meat processing, marketing and the economics of local and niche meats.
With the program's help, the number of North Carolina meat handlers has grown from 128 in 2007 to just over 560 at the end of 2012. And small producers have appreciated the opportunity charcuterie -- from salami made from ground meat to guanciale made from the pig's jowl -- has given them to use (and profit from) parts of the pig traditionally left over after the more common chops and hams are processed.
McKissick also said the state has updated regulations to make it easier for retailers such as butchers and restaurants to dry cure their own meats in-house.
Back in Vermont, officials are excited by the prospects, but also caution that cured meats aren't for every producer.
"You have a lot of inventory tied up when you're aging something for six, or nine months or a year, or two years," said Lewis. Waiting that out may mean selling other products, too.
Case in point, Pete Colman of Vermont Salumi in East Montpelier. He learned the old-world tradition of dry aging meats by apprenticing with a butcher in Perugia, Italy, slaughtering pigs at the homes of families and hanging the meat in basements and garages. He looks forward to using the Mad River Food Hub's curing rooms to begin aging his meats. But in the meantime, he also produces fresh sausages.
"I think we can do dry cured meats," he said of Vermont. "I think we can do a lot of them."