This Aroostook County butter is so legendary it’s rationed

8 months ago

For a while it was toilet paper. Now, at least in Aroostook County, it’s butter.

The thought of things being rationed brings to mind pandemic shortages, when toilet paper was scarce and people stood in line to reach empty shelves. People who grew up at an earlier time recall World War II rations of everything from food to stockings.

But summer in Aroostook means Houlton Farms Dairy is deep into ice cream season with dairy bars in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou. And since it takes cream to make both ice cream and butter, the dairy’s legendary butter really is rationed.

After a recent story about unique foods of The County, readers wrote in to say we needed to include that butter. So, here’s a look at why it’s so special, how people like to use it and how they manage when it’s scarce.

A sign says Houlton Farms butter is limited to one per person at Save-A-Lot in Presque Isle. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

“It’s like a groupie thing. It has its own following,” said Michael Barker, store manager of Save-A-Lot in Presque Isle. 

A sign on the shelf states, “Only 1 Houlton Farms butter per cart.” The butter is packaged by the pound in waxed paper wrappers.

Houlton Farms Dairy has been in business for 85 years, and besides its butter and ice cream, it produces milk and cream, buttermilk, sour cream, chocolate milk and lemonade.

“Making butter is an art form,” said Eric Lincoln, part owner of the family-owned and operated dairy company and the butter maker for nearly 40 years.  

Ice cream is part of the reason for the shortage, but it’s not the whole story, he said. Today’s trend of plant-based milks has hurt the dairy industry. Milk consumption is down nationally and it is still falling. Americans drink less than half a cup per day on average, down from more than three-quarters of a cup in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A pat of Houlton Farms butter melts into shredded, seasoned butternut squash. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

If more people drank skim and 1 percent milk, there would be more cream to make butter with, he said. The dairy currently is limited to making butter once a week based on the raw material they have to work with.

The company sells every bit of its butter in stores, Lincoln said, so people who come to the dairy or the ice cream locations looking for it won’t find it. If store shelves are empty, the dairy just doesn’t have it.   

Their butter is the most expensive of the real butters in any store, Lincoln said. Its uniqueness is partly due to the old-fashioned cold process he uses to separate the cream from the milk.  

People say the product reminds them of their grandmother’s home-churned butter, Save-A-Lot’s Barker said. In fact, many customers buy it for family members who don’t live here anymore and ship it to them.

Barker recalled his own family would go camping in Bar Harbor when he was growing up. One of their meals would be lobster, and they’d have to take Houlton Farms butter with them because no other butter was as good.

Linda Daigle of St. Agatha is a loyal butter groupie. She blames her mother.

“She brought it into the house. I’m like, ‘Mom, what’s the big deal? It’s just butter’,” she said. “No it isn’t. She got me hooked on it, and we’re all hooked on it now.”

A cooler owned by Bruce Bernier of Vernon, Connecticut, is stuffed with Houlton Farms butter that he brought home from Aroostook County.  (Courtesy of Bruce Bernier)

The butter is creamy with a little bit of saltiness, she said. Her family’s favorite way to eat it is on ployes, those thin buckwheat pancakes that are staples at French Acadian meals.

Her mother wouldn’t allow any other butter on her ployes, she said.

Because the product is so scarce during the summer, Daigle’s family does what many people reported: they buy as much as they can, wherever they can, and freeze it. 

Visiting friends and family even stock up and take several pounds back home, she said.

“You don’t even have to wrap it in anything. Just freeze just like it is. It doesn’t usually last that long. You could leave it in there definitely for six months to a year,” she said.

Butter is best when frozen in its original wrapper, according to the Undeniably Dairy website of Dairy Management Inc., which is affiliated with the National Dairy Council. The unsalted kind will last up to five months, while the salted variety can last around nine months. To use the butter, let it thaw in the refrigerator.

Bruce Bernier, an Aroostook native who now lives in Vernon, Connecticut, has a summer home on Long Lake and also travels to northern Maine about three times a year. He stocks up on the butter and fills his freezer so he has it all year long, he said.

Bernier likes the product because it comes from Aroostook County cows, but also because it’s the creamiest butter he’s ever found. 

His favorite way to eat it is on Aroostook County baked potatoes, he said.

He’s even come up with a unique way to share his obsession: he puts it in butter dishes and gives it away as gifts at Christmas time.

“I’m a big believer of supporting local farms,” Bernier said. “It’s a great product by great people in a great county.”  

BDN senior editor Julie Harris contributed to this report.