State of the Industry

Tight-knit communities help Maine, New Hampshire dairy

Editor’s note: As part of our “State of the Industry” series we take a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest states — Maine and New Hampshire.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — For dairy farmers in Maine and New Hampshire, small can be big. According to the most recent statistics from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Maine had 330 licensed dairy farms in 2008 and New Hampshire had only 130. Very few dairy farms in these states milk more than 1,000 cows, and the average size is closer to 100. Each state has a population of 1.3 million.

The small size of the states and their dairy industries, however, have helped foster a tight-knit community of support for dairy farmers and cheesemakers in Maine and New Hampshire.

© 2010 Elizabeth Ferry
LOCAL FEAST — New Hampshire-made cheeses and other local foods currently are in high demand by restaurant owners and consumers at farmers’ markets across the state.

“The biggest thing is the smallness of the state and cooperation of all the agencies in agriculture,” says John Porter, University of New Hampshire extension professor and dairy specialist, emeritus, and author of “The History and Economics of the New Hampshire Dairy Industry.”

Porter says he recently spoke with a couple who visited from New York and were amazed at the smallness of New Hampshire, and how easy it was to get right to the heads of organizations.

“A big advantage a lot of people mention, especially those from out-of-state, is that we have a close-knit state with lots of cooperation among agencies. It’s almost unique to the country,” Porter says. “Public health, the extension, USDA ... they’re all working together in a friendly way. Everyone is very supportive and likes to see the farmer succeed.”

Maine similarly boasts a supportive, close-knit dairy industry.

“Because it’s a fairly small industry in relation to other states, everyone knows each other well across the state. There is a good relationship between dairy farmers, policy makers and the infrastructure used to run dairy farms,” says Gary Anderson, cooperative extension specialist, University of Maine. “In general, we have a really great group of individual people who work together well on common issues. It’s a really good collaborative group of people.”

• Maine

Dairy farms in Maine are spread out across 15 of the state’s 16 counties, with concentrations near Waterville along the Kennebec river, and in Waldo, Kennebec and Sommerset counties. The largest dairy in Maine milks 1,600 cows.

Many of Maine’s dairy farms have expanded to accommodate additional family members and new generations. Seventy-six of Maine’s dairy farms are certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and National Organic Program. According to NASS, Maine’s 33,000 dairy cows produced 603 million pounds of milk in 2008.

Major dairy processors in Maine include Oakhurst Dairy and HP Hood in Portland, Garelick Farms (owned by Dean Foods) in Bangor, Houlton Farms in Houlton and Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook.

The Maine Milk Commission sets minimum wholesale milk prices for all fluid milk sold in the state. The price-setting mechanisms include setting over-order premiums and cost-of-production premiums. According to Tim Drake, executive director, Maine Milk Commission, about 53 percent of the milk produced in Maine is shipped outside the state. From the milk that stays in Maine, that percentage of premiums is paid to dairy farmers.

“Just this year alone, the premiums we set brought well over $8 million back into the producers’ pockets in Maine,” Drake says.

Starting in 2004, Maine’s dairy industry also has benefited from a dairy relief program that pays dairy farmers the difference they lose when milk prices fall below certain levels. This relief program is run by the state’s general fund.

“Since the inception of the dairy relief program, there’s been more than $40 million put into the dairy industry,” Drake says, adding that it has helped keep Maine’s dairy industry fairly stable through the recent low prices and economic downturn.

“It seems we have been able to hold onto most of our farms,” Drake says. “We have lost some, but we haven’t lost as many as some of our neighboring states.”

• New Hampshire

Dairy farms in New Hampshire are concentrated along the Connecticut River Valley on the western border of the state, and the Merrimack River Valley down the center and east. The average herd size is 115, and there is one 1,000-cow dairy in the state. After losing five or six dairies over the winter, there now are about 125 dairy farms in New Hampshire, Porter says.

“With this tough economic thing, we lost ground again,” Porter says. “We were optimistic — it had stabilized, and a few young folks were coming in. But with the tight economy, we lost farms and lost ground a little.”

The major milk bottler is an HP Hood plant in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire also is home to Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt company that markets its products across the United States as well as in Canada, France and Ireland.

Porter says lack of options where farmers can sell their milk and a shrinking infrastructure, as well as expensive land and high taxes, are some of the challenges New Hampshire’s dairy industry faces. However, dairy remains the No. 2 agricultural industry in the state, bringing $58.9 million of receipts into New Hampshire in 2008, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.

• Value-added survival

Dairy farmers in both Maine and New Hampshire have turned toward value-added production and marketing, many with the help of state and industry organizations, as a way to grow business and preserve their farms in the face of low prices and tough economic times.

Today Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co. (MOOMilk) celebrates its official product launch at Smiling Hill Dairy. MOOMilk started with 10 organic dairy farms that were dropped by an out-of-state processor in 2009. With the help of MOFGA, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Department of Agriculture, these farms formed a low-profit L3C corporation with a mission of helping Maine organic family dairy farms survive by earning a fair price for their milk.

Milk from MOOMilk farms is being picked up every other day by Schoppee Milk Transport of Holden and trucked to the Smiling Hill Dairy production facility for processing. Production started earlier this week, and product became available Tuesday in some Maine stores. Oakhurst Dairy and Crown of Maine Organic Co-op handle distribution to stores across Maine. The milk also will be sold in locations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the near future.

Ninety percent of the profits from the milk sales will go to the family farms producing the milk. According to MOOMilk, the start of its production marks a new step in the recovery of the Maine dairy industry.

Value-added products are becoming more popular on Maine dairy farms as well. Since milk prices started to drop and expanding in size was not an affordable option for many dairy farmers, some of them chose to grow through innovation and marketing.

“A lot of people are looking at making cheese or bottling their own milk,” Porter says. “This has been simultaneous with a real push in the state for local produce, tied in with the ‘buy local’ theme that has been promoted.”

Doug and Debby Erb, owners of Springvale Farms, a second-generation dairy farm in Landaff, N.H., decided to add farmstead cheesemaking to their business to raise the value of the milk from their 85 cows.

“The low prices of 2006 were a wake-up call for us, and that’s when we decided to do something nontraditional,” says Doug Erb.

Erb worked with a private consultant and took classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. He even visited Somerset, England, to learn about traditional Welsh farmstead cheesemaking. In January 2009, the Erbs made their first batch of Landaff Cheese, a mild, semi-firm cheese modeled after the Welsh Caerphilly. The Erbs’ cheese business, Landaff Creamery, sells the cheese “green” to Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., which ages and markets the cheese.

“We wanted a business model that would allow us to get big enough in a short amount of time so we could be effective in the sustainability of our farm,” Erb says.

Landaff Creamery is one of seven or eight active members of the New Hampshire Cheesemakers Guild, an organization that started a year ago with help from the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and Granite State Dairy Promotion, a nonprofit funded by the state’s dairy farmers.

A meeting in February will determine some of the primary goals of the fledgeling guild, but this past year its goal was gaining visibility and promoting its new logo at events. The guild also is part of a New Hampshire wine and cheese trail publication, supported in part by the state’s departments of agriculture and tourism.

“I would say there is tremendous interest in local cheese on the part of consumers and restaurant owners,” says Gail McWilliam Jellie, director, New Hampshire Division of Agricultural Development. “Some chefs are putting cheese plates together featuring New Hampshire cheeses. There are a lot of winter farmers’ markets this year around the state. ... Local products of all kinds are hot right now.”

The Maine Cheese Guild, which includes around 80 members and 30 of the state’s cheesemakers, started in 2003 and meets about 10 times a year. Many meetings take place at different cheesemakers’ production facilities and involve workshops and learning about how members run their operations. An upcoming meeting in April will focus on how cheesemakers can make their own rennet.

“The guild is a great group of people,” says Eric Rector, president of Maine Cheese Guild and owner/cheesemaker at Monroe Cheese Studio, Monroe, Maine. “I’ve heard from other states that cheesemakers are not always so open, willing to share tips, tricks and experiences as they are in this guild. It’s a great atmosphere to be able to come and be a cheesemaker, with the willingness of other cheesemakers to be so open and sharing.”

Rector says the cheesemakers in the state have grown from about 15-17 when he first entered the business five years ago to now more than 35. And with increased demand for local foods, he sees the opportunity for even more growth and partnerships with dairy farms.

“The audience here in Maine is very receptive to local dairy products,” Rector says. “The market at this point seems endless for the types of cheese we’re making. It’s a real bright spot in the agricultural scene.”


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