Whey Station

An effective yet odor-free wood-finishing product from a surprising source

by Will Lindner

vt_nat_coat_JC_155Andrew Meyer, the founder and president of Vermont Natural Coatings in Hardwick, meets with one of the producers of his raw materials. Meyer’s company manufactures a line of wood-finishing products using whey protein, a cheese byproduct.

Hardwick has a knack for reinventing itself. Once a mill town thanks to the presence of the Lamoille River, and later a granite-finishing center thanks to its proximity to quarries in nearby Woodbury, Hardwick village was also a bustling country music town in the 1970s. Taverns featured live bands and competed with each other for patrons every Friday and Saturday night.

Then came a period of doldrums and disrepair — at least to outside observers. Main Street suffered serious fires in 1992 and 2006, blighting the village with plywood-covered windows and doors over vacant, damaged buildings, which remain an unfortunate feature of this small (population 3,000-plus) Caledonia County town.

But a new Hardwick miracle is happening: not so much on Main Street (even though Claire’s Restaurant and the Buffalo Mountain Food Cooperative are solidly linked in), but instead, just northwest of the village off Vermont 15, in an array of squat, workmanlike buildings in the Hardwick Industrial Park. There, entrepreneurs are building an industry that, like the saw and grain mills and the granite sheds of past eras, is based on a local natural resource. This time, the resource is agriculture, and Andrew Meyer, founder of Vermont Natural Coatings, is among the handful of visionaries at the center of the movement.

“I believe Vermont is a good place to do business,” says Meyer, 41, “and that we need to invest in the future of an economy that can be supported through local ventures.”

Referring to the other agriculture-related businesses in the industrial park — and what sets this park apart from the industrial parks in other Vermont communities is that they are all agriculture-related — Meyer says, “We complement each other in our mission. We are building companies in a rural part of Vermont with the concept that the stronger our collaboration is, the stronger our local economies are going to be. Hopefully, as a cluster of businesses, we can support the growth and well-being of the entire community.”

At first glance, Vermont Natural Coatings’ connection to agriculture seems obscure. The other businesses in the Hardwick cluster — for example, Vermont Soy, High Mowing Seeds, Pete’s Greens, and Jasper Hill Cheese — are clearly farm- and food-related. Vermont Natural Coatings manufactures a line of wood-finishing products for use on floors, furniture, doors and trim, and exterior wood. And what’s that got to do with farming and food?

VNC’s products use a formula containing recycled whey protein. Whey is a byproduct of cheese making. The whey protein is there for a reason: It replaces chemical additives like formaldehyde and benzene — potential carcinogens — in standard, water-based commercial wood finishes.

And that’s VNC’s calling card. The absence of such chemicals, and the presence of whey protein, produces an effective wood-finishing product that’s odor-free; does not have to be applied with the windows open or a fan on; and is safe for use around children and pets as well as for the woodworker, contractor, or homeowner who is brushing or wiping it on.

It has found a niche in the green-building industry, which is not only a burgeoning segment of Vermont’s construction trade but of the national industry as well. VNC products are now sold in some 250 stores in the United States and Canada, and are making inroads in other countries.

There are two reasons for this, according to Meyer. One is based in health regulations coming out of Washington.

“The government is implementing laws requiring the removal of carcinogens from these products,” he says. “If your formula has these ingredients you need to remove them. Using the whey protein technology, we can match the function of the chemicals that are being taken out, so large market holders are having to change their products and, meanwhile, we’re in the position of having a formula and technology that’s better than anything in the market.”

The other reason Meyer cites for VNC’s success is cultural: Vermont is not the only place that’s going green. “The market is changing. There is a growing environmental awareness among consumers, who want to have safe, green, ethically produced products in their homes and buildings.

“So it’s a perfect storm for our company and a perfect fit for us,” he says. “We’re proving that things like this can happen in rural Vermont: that we can add value for the dairy industry and improve the market potential for woodworkers using our product. It’s those considerations that measure the success of our company.”

Meyer is a sort of value-added agricultural product himself. Raised on a local organic dairy farm owned and operated by his parents, Steve and Patty Meyer, Andrew attended the University of Vermont, where he earned a degree in environmental science.

Soon after, he joined the Washington, D.C., staff of Sen. James Jeffords as a legislative assistant specializing in agricultural policy. Meyer found that Jeffords had a particular interest in the potential of value-added processes to support and resurrect Vermont’s agricultural economy.

Frustrated that the federal farm bills consistently overlooked that area, Jeffords managed to secure research funding for food scientists at UVM, and Meyer acted as go-between linking the senator’s office to the university researchers.

It was there that he met Dr. Mingruo Guo, a chemist and tenured professor who was experimenting with the protein structure in whey to develop a film-building substance. Guo originally thought this film would be useful in food packaging, but he eventually realized he could create a very strong but flexible film with other potential applications.

Continued research led to a patented formula for PolyWhey, the product now marketed by Vermont Natural Coatings.

Meyer says other companies had sought to provide a safer, non-toxic wood-finishing formula, but their finishes were less durable than the major brands. The UVM research with the hard but flexible finish using whey protein solved that problem, according to Meyer.

Eager to get back to Vermont — eager, in fact, to get back to the family farm, where the Meyers (Andrew is the oldest of four brothers) were contemplating the future of the enterprise — he returned in 2004 and founded Vermont Natural Coatings.

There was as yet no product to market, but Meyer brought Guo on as a partner and chief chemist (still a UVM professor, Guo consults with the company regularly). They broadened product development — VNC came up with a whey-based wood cleaner — and now employ a “chief formulator,” Frank Lee.

Meanwhile, Meyer was looking for a home and manufacturing facility for the products he envisioned. Local research led him to the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, based in St. Johnsbury. NVDA owned the property at the Hardwick Industrial Park; Steve Patterson, the executive director, sold Meyer some of the land there and helped arrange financing.

“As I got to know Andrew, I found that he is one of four or five people in Hardwick who are key players in the value-added agricultural movement,” says Patterson. “He’s been integral in establishing other enterprises there, including Vermont Soy and the Vermont Food Venture Center [an incubator facility].

“He has devoted hours and hours of time to that effort, even when there’s no personal benefit for him, but for his hometown. In my mind, these people have turned Hardwick into this incredible, energetic, bustling community.”

Meyer built a production facility on the land he purchased from NVDA — a modest, one-story building that VNC shares with Vermont Soy. It seems incredible that every drop of these nationally marketed commercial products is produced in this humble plant.

The VNC portion hosts a series of stainless steel vats with gauges, pipes, and other controls that occupy less than half of the building’s square footage. That leaves room for the industrial scales and the forklift that ferries the finished products, in various-sized containers, to the office building and warehouse next door, which VNC leases.

Vermont Natural Coatings went into production in 2008. Its first outlet was a general store in nearby Greensboro. By forging relationships with architects, contractors, retail chains, and product representatives around the country, the company’s reputation has grown and demand has increased.

In optimistic moments, Meyer worries about creating a model for sustainable, manageable growth, for it’s important to him not to blow it. The company provides jobs for a workforce, presently numbering eight, and support for his family: Meyer and his wife, Mary, and their two children, Fenton and Lila.

As important as these concerns is the message that Meyer believes his products convey.

“We’re connecting with people in Austin, in San Francisco, in Seattle, and New York City,” he says. “These are people who want better food, safer products, a change in the way our products are developed and what goes into them. Our message is that the stuff you put on your floor, furniture, and cabinets is connected with your beliefs about what makes your community a better place.

“All the other businesses we’re working with in Hardwick are doing the same thing. There’s a lot of value in that.” •