Published September 16, 2013
Kevin O’Donnell, New England Culinary Institute ¬ A worker washes and turns cheese in the aging room at Spring Brook Farm in Reading.
Looking for a career? Say cheese-making
Serious about cheese? No, not eating it, but making it and earning a living doing so.
Vermont Technical College’s fledgling Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems is offering a five-day cheese-making program in October that will not only tackle the science behind making cheese but will provide hands-on experience with local cheesemakers and farms.
“We’re focused on truly building entrepreneurs,” said Chris Dutton, director of the institute and a VTC professor since 2005. “We teach you the basic science in the lab, get you to real farms producing real cheese, and then go over the economics, so you can make a living once you’ve learned your art.”
The institute, based on the practical way dairy management is taught at VTC in Randolph Center, is just getting up and running with a $3.4 million grant through a U.S. Department of Labor program.
Dutton said the approach to the cheese-making course is the theme for all the courses it plans to offer.
“The idea is that a large component of the classes is spent on the actual Vermont farms where they are producing, and taught by practical people who are making a living doing what they do and have a passion about what they do,” he said.
Dr. Montserrat “Montse” Almena-Aliste, a dairy technologist and American Cheese Society-certified cheese professional, will be bringing her international expertise to the class. She has designed a curriculum to incorporate and improve on elements she taught while working for the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont.
Originally from Spain, Almena-Aliste started down the road to her doctorate in chemistry and food science after deciding to stop practicing as a veterinarian. She studied at the Dairy Technology and Analysis French National Institute for Agricultural Research, well known for its focus on cheese manufacturing.
She went on to finish postdoctoral research at UVM and then for nearly 10 years worked at the artisan cheese institute, which changed its focus and ended its workshops in May.
“I was extremely sad to see it go after nearly 10 years,” said Almena-Aliste.
Determined to see it continue in some form, she came up with the idea to contact local colleges to develop a similar program. Having worked directly with former state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee at the institute, she turned to him for help. The first suggestion? Vermont Tech.
Almena-Aliste said that nearby Neighborly Farms’ Linda Dimmick has been extremely supportive, offering equipment and the use of its facility for the class.
“They said: ‘You can borrow anything you want. Tell us your wish list and we’ll put it together,’” said Almena-Aliste. “It’s been a really amazing experience.”
Neighborly Farms has been producing award-winning cheeses at its organic dairy in Randolph Center for more than 10 years. Two other Vermont farms will also be supporting the course, Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. in Woodstock and Spring Brook Farm in Reading.
“It’s been a real teamwork approach, and I like that a lot,” said Almena-Aliste.
The course, Essential Principles and Practices of Cheesemaking, will run its initial five days on the VTC campus Oct. 21-25, focusing on cheese-making quality and chemistry of milk, principles of cheese-making for multiple cheese types, and quality control and monitoring.
The focus on thorough, hands-on learning in a short period of time is what will define the Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems, Dutton said. He said a welding course will be offered in October, part of an equipment repair series, and by December he hopes to have the full list of summer offerings posted online — which will include courses about brewing beer and making wine and other summer food-related topics.
The maximum length of two to three weeks is designed to be more feasible for many than the more traditional 15-week courses toward a two- to four-year degree the college offers now. Dutton said the courses could add up to certification or not but will ensure that those taking the classes will have demonstrable experience in their field.
“We’re really hoping to be the place where people who want to make money with the land they have in northern New England can come to find many ways to do that,” said Dutton.
“I’d like to think it could also be the ultimate gap year,” he added. “You come to the college and learn all kinds of ridiculously practical things that are going to be really useful in life and most likely not part of your liberal arts major.”
He said the institute is trying to gather subject matter experts to create the best possible curriculum and would welcome contact from anyone interested in sharing their knowledge and skills.
“It’s sort of a grass-roots effort within the state. We’d be happy to hear from anyone who would want to participate,” he said.
More information and registration for the cheese-making course: www.vtc.edu/right.php/pid/40/sid/565/tid/1614.
Dutton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.