Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, visited a small business in Vergennes Wednesday to spotlight the work of a regional development center he pushed to establish in Vermont, with a goal of modernizing and supporting businesses related to dairy farming.
At Lu Lu in downtown Vergennes, ice cream is an experience — with some bold flavors like curried peanut butter. Other small-batch artisan flavors are more classic, like Vermont maple.
"We’re as small as possible but with a big vision of making local delicious," said Laura Mack of Lu Lu.
The family-run business now has eyes on growth. Mack told NECN she will use roughly $80,000 in grant money from the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, along with her own investments, to update marketing materials and packaging designs — to even allow for mail orders. The grant money, received in two separate rounds, is also funding research and development of a new line of ice cream using goat milk.
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"The idea is we’ll be in grocery stores, we’ll be shipping out of state, we’ll be educating people what Vermont tastes like in the best way possible, which is ice cream, in my opinion," Mack said.
Leahy dropped by Wednesday to check out the work of the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, which he strongly advocated for in the Senate.
Based in Montpelier out of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the center serves 10 Northeast states, and has awarded some $4 million in grants to nearly 50 recipients since 2020.
Its overall goal is supporting a sector that’s been battered in recent years by high costs, low prices paid to farmers, and the rise of plant-based competitors.
"When you think about American consumption of dairy, we’re consuming less fluid milk, but more in other products — so cheese, ice cream, yogurt, sour cream — and those are the types of products Vermonters make really, really well," said Laura Ginsburg of the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center.
Leahy noted that given changes in agriculture over the decades, programs that emphasize innovation should be strengthened.
"What I’m trying to do — especially in my last year here — is to make sure there’s enough money in the pipeline for a lot of these things in Vermont where we can innovate, whatever the business is,” Leahy said. “Agriculture is nearest and dearest to my heart."
Leahy says concepts like Lu Lu’s, which connect small producers, add value to their ingredients, and then drive interest in farm-fresh goods, can boost all across the state and region.
"That way, we’re buying more milk, we’re buying more basil, we’re buying more berries,” Mack emphasized. “We’re buying from everybody else, which will increase the agricultural world just a little bit — one pint at a time!"
Mack said her grant-funded development of recipes for future offerings using local goat milk should result in new product releases later this year. The new packaging, also funded with an innovation grant, should hit shelves around the start of summer, she added.