Maine, New Hampshire look to boost local, organic dairy

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes 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. — From the Northeast seacoast to the White Mountain National Forest, amidst a landscape of local farms and food, Maine and New Hampshire are home to many conventional and organic dairies, farmstead processors and specialty cheesemakers.

• Maine

Maine has 218 licensed dairy farms — about a third of which are organic — and more than 140 dairy licensed retail dairy plants, many on-farm, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Oakhurst Dairy, a major regional fluid milk brand owned by Dairy Farmers of America, is in Portland, Maine.

Maine has experienced much growth in its local cheesemaking industry, which is supported in part by the Maine Cheese Guild. The guild hosts an annual cheese festival, which will take place Sept. 8 this year in Pittsfield, Maine, and feature about 30 cheesemakers plus food trucks, wineries, craft beer, workshops and music. The Maine Cheese Guild also hosts hands-on cheese workshops and an open creamery day, and it helps fund Maine cheese entries at the annual American Cheese Society contest.

When the Maine Cheese Guild was launched in the early 2000s, there were 16 cheesemakers in the state. Now there are around 80. There is a high concentration of farmstead creameries in the state’s midcoast region, where some of these cheesemakers have organized the Midcoast Maine Cheese Trail.

“They’re pretty much all small scale, and over 65 percent are farmstead,” says Jessie Dowling, president of the Maine Cheese Guild and owner of Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, Maine, which makes artisan sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses.

Dowling notes there is one large-scale cheesemaker, Pineland Farms Dairy Co., in Bangor, Maine. Small-scale production has flourished in part thanks to a strong local food movement but also because the state has a friendly environment for start-ups.

“Our regulations are very amiable to getting licensed and started. You don’t need to own a pasteurizer but can do the same thing with a thermometer, clock and heat treatment,” Dowling says. “There are less barriers to getting involved. You don’t have to have a lot of money to get a license. The Department of Agriculture in Maine is very pro-ag, helping farmers get going and keep going.”

A wide net of support also exists for dairy in Maine from nonprofits such as Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). MOFGA offers farm visits and troubleshooting to organic dairy farms not only in Maine but throughout New England.

“We’re free to help everyone. It’s very unique, and valuable, like a dairy extension,” says Jacki Perkins, organic dairy specialist, MOFGA.

Perkins, who grew up on an 80-cow organic dairy farm in Maine, notes the average dairy size in the state is 150 milking cows, but farms range from 10-cow Amish dairies to herds of more than 2,000. Almost 70 of the state’s 218 dairy farms are organic.

One challenge for both organic and conventional dairies is a shortage of larger-scale dairy processors in the state. MOFGA recently teamed up with Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Milk Producers, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and other groups to obtain a USDA grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether an in-state processor could help provide more stability for organic dairy farmers. The study’s findings are expected to be released in September.

Perkins says dairy farming is important to Maine, particularly as dairy comprises the most agricultural land of any sector in the state.

“We like to say if there were no dairy, we wouldn’t have fields. Even conventional dairies will pasture their heifers,” Perkins says. “It’s pretty integral to our image of this picturesque, very rural, bucolic kind of draw people think about when they come to Maine.”

• New Hampshire

New Hampshire has a smaller dairy industry with 99 cow dairies and 57 dairy processors, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees dairy inspection and licensing. Organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, owned by Lactalis, is headquartered in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Like Maine, New Hampshire has a number of small, farmstead cheese and dairy processing operations.

“Some people have had the opportunity to process their own milk, giving them more control over the price. There has been an increase in people doing that over the last 10-15 years, but it seems to have leveled out a bit right now,” says New Hampshire Division of Agricultural Development Director Gail McWilliam Jellie.

One of these farmstead processors is Landaff Creamery, which started making cheese in 2008. Owners Deb and Doug Erb milk about 85 cows on their Landaff, New Hampshire, farm that backs up to the White Mountains, selling part of their milk to Agri-Mark cooperative and using part of it to make their own raw milk cheeses.

The creamery’s flagship Landaff Cheese is a Welsh-style Cheddar, and its Kinsman Ridge Cheese is a semi-soft washed rind cheese similar to a French Tomme. Landaff Creamery also has started crafting small specialty batches “to order,” and currently is doing a Landaff with Truffles for one of its longtime customers. All of its cheeses are aged in the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, and Jasper Hill markets and distributes the cheeses.

Deb Erb notes that their dairy is among the smaller ones in the state. The larger farms tend to be located along the Connecticut River on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire.

“The average size is growing like it is in all states,” Erb says. “It used to be the average was around 100 (cows) — now one farm in the state has around 1,000 cows, and there are several around the 200-cow size.”

Landaff Creamery is among a dozen cheesemakers included on New Hampshire’s Wine & Cheese Trails, a map of creameries and wineries open to visitors and grouped by region, available online and in printed format from the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and partner organizations. Granite State Dairy Promotion, the dairy marketing organization in the state, also publishes the Granite State Ice Cream Trail, which lists scoop shops all over the state.

“Agritourism has been a growing enterprise for most farms,” McWilliam Jellie says. “Not just dairy, but most farms have some activity or experiential thing going on at the farm, from pick-your-own to corn mazes or hay rides.”

Erb says there has been more demand for local products such as locally-bottled milk and farmstead cheese, as consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from.

“People care about their product,” she says.


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