The Great Cream Conundrum

cow grazing in the Vermont countryside

Let’s not beat around the bush…we’re running out of caramel! Well, not exactly, we are running out of cream, an ingredient that is crucial to making our sumptuous, slow-cooked golden caramel. Imagining a world without caramel is pretty bleak. But, the truth is we are currently facing a cream supply shortage. Unfortunately, this is not a new issue and it’s not an issue that is going to get resolved anytime soon.

Where's the Caramel?

Vermont is losing dairy farms. It’s sad but true. In 2018, 10% of Vermont dairy farms closed. The once-flourishing dairy industry, the one that contributes to Vermont’s idyllic landscape of rolling fields speckled with cows, is experiencing losses at unprecedented rates.  Farming is hard work and long hours, and Vermont farms are struggling to find laborers. If you combine that with the fact that our population is aging, the younger generations are leaving the family farms for a more sustainable future, it’s no surprise that Vermont dairy farms are struggling to survive.

Milk prices are at an all-time low. This is probably the single biggest reason why Vermont is losing dairy farms.  Dairy prices dropped in 2015 and have stayed low for an unprecedented five-year period.  Vermont farms that operate with minimal margins and reserves have struggled to weather the tumultuous market. With milk prices at historically low rates, Vermont farms are growing in size, milking more cows, and producing more milk just to try to keep their farms afloat. 

Milk production in Vermont is at an all-time high. I know we just said that there was no cream. How can this be if the farms are producing more milk than ever before?  Farmers are increasing production to make up for their shortfalls, but unfortunately, that is driving the prices even lower. It's a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

There is more demand for Vermont cream than ever before. Apart from us here at Lake Champlain Chocolates, there are a number of iconic Vermont products that rely on dairy, like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Vermont Creamery butter, and Cabot cheddar cheese. The demand increases during the holiday months when people indulge a little more and buy tasty treats for gifts, butter for baking holiday cookies, and whipped cream to top their pies.

When it comes to cream, it’s a numbers game.  As a chocolate confectionary company, we use over 70,000 pounds of heavy cream and butter (made from cream) every year to make our gourmet chocolate truffles, rich caramels, and so much more.

To make cream, you have to separate whole milk.  Five (5) gallons of milk only makes 0.3 gallons of cream (and 4.7 gallons of skim milk, a commodity that has declined drastically in popularity over the past couple of years).  While cream is more expensive than milk, the difference in pricing does not make up for the labor required to separate the milk into cream and the loss volume. Therefore, farmers that are already struggling to make ends meet, harrow at the idea of selling 0.3 gallons of cream, when they can make more money selling the milk as is.

So now what? Well, to fill our busy production schedule our purchasing team is expanding their search for organic cream from local to national. Unfortunately, cream is highly perishable and must be used within a short period of time. For us, freezing cream to store it later is not a viable option because the caramel it produces does not measure up to our high standards of quality.  We expect this supply shortage to have an impact on the availability of some of our products (including our caramel-filled organic bars and caramel hearts for Valentine’s Day).

The next time you enjoy one of our luscious caramels, stop and take a minute to appreciate the local farmers and all of the dedication and hard work that goes into each and every bite. In the eternal words of the Vermont Dairy Council, “Today, more than ever, milk matters!”  For the love of caramel let’s hope that we can help raise milk prices and provide a more sustainable future for Vermont’s dairy farms. 

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