HOULTON, Maine — Forget diamonds or precious metals. This time of year the real coin of the realm in Maine is a soft, golden block of sweet cream butter from Aroostook County.
It’s also almost impossible to find.
With cream production down and ice cream production up, Houlton Farms Dairy has suspended its butter-making operations until this fall, and that has butter-loving fans scrambling as supplies melt away.
“I buy it all the time,” Gilda Moshier, 77, of Frenchville said. “It’s the taste of home. I’ve been using it forever. Are you sure there is really no more?”
There may still be a few of the 1-pound blocks with their distinctive yellow-and-red wrappers in several Aroostook County stores, but those business owners are only telling select customers for fear of a run on the coolers reminiscent of the Depression-era run on the banks.
“It’s pretty dry out there,” Eric Lincoln, plant manager at the 78-year-old Houlton Farms Dairy, said. “What we are seeing now is a ‘perfect storm’ when it comes to butter production.”
Butter, Lincoln said, is 100 percent cream, and that cream is a byproduct from the processing of raw milk.
But milk sales have been declining over the past several months, so Houlton Farms Dairy is purchasing less raw milk for processing. Less milk going through the dairy means less cream skimmed off the top.
What cream the dairy is collecting, Lincoln said, is going toward meeting the annual summer ice cream demands.
“We are also selling containers of fresh whipping cream, which are very popular,” he said. “When you take all this together, there is simply less cream to go around right now.”
That’s bad news for the hardcore Houlton Farms Dairy butter fans around the state who reacted with predictable dismay to the company’s social media post on Facebook, alerting them to the butter drought, pledging to stock up when the butter was back on the shelves.
They are going to have a long wait, according to Lincoln, who said it takes the cream removed from 2.5 gallons of skim milk to get enough cream to make 1 pound of butter.
“We won’t have any until at least September,” Lincoln said. “I understand some people are angry [and] think we just don’t want to make any, but that is not at all the case.”
Butter shortages are typical at the dairy this time of year, but it’s the first time production has been suspended altogether.
John Ellis, owner of Ellis Family Market in Patten, said some of his customers are taking the shortage to heart.
“I had one customer tell me they are doing horribly because there is no Houlton Farms butter,” Ellis said. “People who like it are really passionate about it. I have customers who come up here from out of town and expect to be able to pick up a brick of butter to take back home.”
Ellis said his supplies have dwindled, and he hates having to tell his longtime customers he can’t meet their butter needs.
“They are taking it personally,” he said.
Lincoln said he understands people’s frustrations and said his delivery drivers are taking some flack.
“My drivers are taking a lot of heat,” he said. “They are the face of the company and the front line soldiers, but if people are going to get mad, get mad at me.”
Up in Frenchville, Gilda Moshier was not so much mad as she was crestfallen, saying she buys several pounds at a time, but had no idea how much was left in her freezer.
“I’m sad because I think I have very little left,” she said. “Oh Lord, this is awful. I guess I’ll have to learn to live without it [because] I refuse to eat margarine or any other butter.”