In dairy business, knowledge is power
Probably not — and that would be true if it came from a cow, a goat, or even a row of soybeans.
But here we are, about a month after we learned about Culture Made Vermont LLC and its interest in building a dairy processing facility in the Exit One Industrial Park, and we know a lot less about the initiative and its plans than a consumer knows about what's in a bottle of milk.
Think about it: When you pull a carton or jug of milk off the supermarket shelf, you have a lot of information at your fingertips. You know the sell-by date, whether it was pasteurized and homogenized, and at which plant those steps took place. You know what percentage of milkfat it contains, the content of vitamins A and D, and so on.
Part of that is government regulation, but part is pure marketing — subtle, yet clever hints to consumers that they can trust the contents.
All that information guides your choice in a matter of seconds as you stand in the dairy aisle. Is it local? Is it organic? Are the cows treated well and raised naturally? That information helps you make a choice.
So what's on Culture Made Vermont's label?
We know Thomas Moffitt, the founder and former president of Commonwealth Dairy, is among the principals in the project, bringing his industry, management and community experience with him.
We know from a comment made at a public meeting by Craig Miskovich, of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., that "this is not a yogurt manufacturing plant," and that Culture Made will be producing "cultured dairy and dairy drinks."
We know that the town's select board has committed to $840,000 in sewer improvements for the facility, to be recouped through user fees.
We know that the town's appointed Design Review Board has signed off on Culture Made's design plans for its tentative home on John Seitz Drive.
And that is all we know.
We're told that the project is worth $32.5 million, and that $28.5 million of that sum is coming from local investors, and that it will create up to 46 jobs in two years. But that's merely what we've been told.
Yet here we are, with a design review board approval and a pledge to spend at least $840,000 of taxpayer dollars on sewer hookups happily granted, and we know virtually nothing about the investors and nothing about the business plan, except that it's not yogurt.
Despite the reassurances we've been given, and the presence of Moffitt to steer this initiative as he did successfully at Commonwealth, that's a bit disconcerting.
And there are questions that need to be answered, before another permit is issued and before a dollar of public funding is committed.
There's already a busy and expanding dairy plant in town, after all. Will Culture Made be able to compete with Commonwealth for skilled workers, and are there enough to go around? Will there be enough milk to supply all these products as dairy farmers struggle? Are the two plants related in some form or fashion that hasn't been disclosed?
What about the state of the dairy industry as whole? On Wednesday, Garelick Farms announced it will shutter its milk bottling plant in Lynn, Mass., citing a national trend of reduced dairy consumption. Is Culture Made pursuing the right market niche? Or does the value-added product being considered — "cultured dairy and dairy drinks" — make this proposal a better bet despite the industry's difficulties?
And why all the secrecy? It's a dairy plant, not a top-secret military research facility, right?
There's one other concern, and it's a significant one: We've recently seen two high-profile examples in this region of businesses who said they had the resources to do a certain thing, and then didn't come through. The Hermitage had its mortgage foreclosed and the resort's assets are headed for receivership because the bills didn't get paid. And the Town of Brattleboro will likely never see the $70,000 it is owed by Cultural Intrigue owner Adam Gebb, who left the country without repaying his creditors. In no way are we comparing, or intend to compare, those two entities with Culture Made. The presence of Moffitt all but assures that's not the case.
But those examples make clear how vitally important it is to have as much information as possible when you invest.
And the taxpayers of Brattleboro are, in fact, investors in this enterprise. It's time they were looped in.
This is not to suggest that intimate details of the plan must be made public. No one is asking anyone to divulge a trade secret, or a product marketing and launch plan. But the people of Brattleboro do deserve to know where their money is going, who will benefit from their investment, and whether it makes sense.
That's a culture of another sort that should grow in Vermont — a culture of transparency.
With that in mind, we look forward to meeting with Moffitt and the investors behind Culture Made Vermont to discuss the details of this initiative, and soon.
We're betting that just like that bottle of milk, the more residents know, the more confident they will be.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.