The joy of melding art and science for a superior product

Maddy Born – Operations Manager and Cheesemaker, Shelburne Farms – Shelburne, VT

Feature | Shelburne, VT | 03 March 2021
Maddy and her teammate Andrea share some thoughts on the days’ work ahead. They believe that the collegial and friendly atmosphere in the production room makes for a better product for the consumer. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“Vermont is just such an amazing place for food production,” says Maddy Born, cheesemaker and Operations Manager at Shelburne Farms.

“I really love being able to turn milk into a value-added product of cheese,” Maddy confides with a beaming smile. “It is not only the process that gets me excited but being able to explain that process to other people from all walks of life and being able to just get that spark in their eye about looking at the whole milk to cheese process differently.”

As you stand on the stunning 1,400 acres of the impeccably landscaped Shelburne Farms situated on the edge of Lake Champlain, it is easy to see why Maddy and her colleagues love working here.

“We pride ourselves on making a handmade raw-milk, cheddar cheese product. There are small parts that are automated but, really, at the end of the day, it's having your hands in the vat working with that curd and milk and cheese that really makes the product what it is. We love being able to show that to visitors in the viewing room.”

As a non-profit education center for sustainability and a National Historic Landmark, Shelburne Farms receives tens of thousands of visitors every year to see how a farm operates as well as enjoy the hiking trails and learn about sustainability.

Large groups of students often visit Shelburne Farms as part of Vermont’s Act 77 that encourages experiential learning about nature and sustainability. This learning is combined with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to educate the students on creating a sustainable future with students developing projects as part of their learning program.

The time-consuming cheddaring process means cutting the curds into smaller pieces and layering them to help press out excess liquid. This gives the cheese a crumbly, layered, dense texture. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Maddy’s passion for sustainability and food safety started while growing up and attending school in Vermont. “I went to UVM [University of Vermont] for nutrition and food science and while I was there, I had a few food production, food science experiences.”

Maddy interned at a local brewery as well as “worked with a couple professors who were really focused on food microbiology and food science. So that instilled my love for and my interest in food, and food production from a science in food safety perspective.”

Right out of college, Maddy secured a job in food production at the operations level which entailed receiving the milk, processing the cheese and shipping the products to enthusiastic consumers. As she says, “it is really everything from milk in to shoes out the door.”

However, the work is not easy. For Maddy and her team a typical day starts at around 6am. “We come in and unhook the batch from the day before, which basically means we take it out of the mould, vacuum seal it, and get it into the cooler,” Maddy says describing the process.

“We then do a full clean-up of the room which is a nice physical activity. Then around 8 am, we get the milk in the vat and start the process that goes until four o'clock in the afternoon,” stated Maddy.

But the hard work also builds a strong team. “Everyone gets along in such an incredible way. Everyone plays a different part in the puzzle of making the product. Communication is huge as well as the knowledge of cleanliness practices to make a safe product,” said Maddy from her managerial perspective.

The cheese makers at Shelburne Farms take control of the entire process from receiving the milk, creating the curding, making the cheese and then packaging it for delivery around the U.S. and beyond. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
For the food production industry, learning and updating your skills is a central part of the job. “I just finished a course on leadership and management through UVM,” Maddy recounted with pride. “It was an amazing opportunity to just go connect with other leaders in all different industries, but also great people in the food industry. It was an awesome opportunity for me since we are required to keep up with our food safety training.”

Unlike other business sectors, and especially in Vermont, Maddy says that there is a real willingness to share information and people take pride in actively building communities of practices.

“With cheesemakers you'd think there would be a level of competition. But really it's a beautiful way to share what you know, and share tips and tricks. We all come together for educational opportunities and bring in leaders in the industry who can teach those courses. So it's really a wonderful environment for constant dialogue about cheese making,” Maddy said of her experience with the food production community.

Maddy also enjoys her role as educator for younger aspirants studying food production science. “Every fall, I have a group of college students from UVM and they're learning about animal nutrition or animal science. They've never seen a cow up close before,” she states with amazement.

“Just to be able to show them that our product comes from these incredibly large beautiful animals, and to see them taking photos and posting them on social media, it is great. I think that's one of the coolest experiences. I look forward to that group because their eyes are wide open and you think ‘they're people that come from out of state and they've never seen cows before,’ “ Maddy says with a giggle.

Maddy is proud of Shelburne Farms participation in Vermont’s Green Dairy Cohort started by the Agency for Natural Resources which connects peers so they can share knowledge on improving environmental performance.

She says that “the whole goal of the program is to look at different ways that you can decrease your energy usage, waste water usage, solid waste usage and basically lower the carbon footprint.”

“I find it a fun challenge to think about how do we recycle hairnets? And what are the outlets for just not tossing those into the trash to go sit in the landfill. Or rubber gloves? How can we decrease our usage of rubber gloves? So I think of it as really fun challenge and a way to engage cheesemakers and thinking critically about the impact we have and what we're doing about it on a large-scale.”

It was energising listening to Maddy describe her excitement about being able “to just talk with people one-on-one about what we're doing and why we think that's important for sustainability. It's a way to work better every day to help the environment in the future.”

At the end of Maddy’s workday, she and her staff are still cleaning and preparing for the next day. Although “physically tired” they are all in good spirits with “a lot of good laughs with the team.”

Maddy’s enjoyment of the industry’s practice of knowledge sharing doesn’t stop her from taking a great deal of pride, and maybe a bit of competitiveness, in the product she makes at Shelburne Farms. Maddy said that if she is at a friends’ house or out at a restaurant that “if their cheese boards don't have our cheese, I am figuring out ways to get our cheese on their boards.”


Editor’s Note: Maddy Born has recently accepted a job at Rhino Foods as Quality Assurance Associate. Rhino Foods is another food production company based in Burlington, Vermont, known for making the cookie dough for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. We will soon be featuring Ted Castle, CEO and President of Rhino Foods, in our Dignity at Work series.