ROCKPORT, Maine — Thirty years ago, Mainers shopping for cheese at their local grocery stores would have found few choices — and of those, plastic-wrapped processed cheese slices had a large market share.
Some speciality stores might have carried imported cheeses from Europe, but there were very few examples of locally made options for sale, Taylor Mudge of Camden recalled last week.
Seeing an opportunity, Mudge decided to introduce a new product to the state: Maine-made hard cheese, which no one else was making. That idea grew into the State of Maine Cheese Co., which is hosting an event on Saturday to mark its 30th anniversary.
“There really wasn’t any commercial-style cheese production” in Maine in the early 1980s, said Mudge, who is no longer involved in the company. “The whole foodie thing wasn’t really well developed up here at all. People didn’t think much about quality cheeses, or where they came from.”
The times — and the cheeses — indeed have changed.
Maine now is home to 71 licensed cheese makers, up from just eight in the mid-1990s, and it has become one of the few bright spots in the state’s troubled dairy industry.
Eric Rector, president of the Maine Cheese Guild, was the 17th cheese maker in Maine when he received his license in 2006. At the time, total annual cheese production in the state was roughly 250,000 pounds of cheese. Today it’s close to 1 million pounds.
“According to an ongoing University of Vermont study, Maine is the fastest growing artisan cheese producing state in the U.S., and Maine is second only to New York state in the number of licensed artisan cheese makers,” said Rector, who was in Wisconsin on Friday attending the American Cheese Society’s annual conference.
New York has just about 100 artisan cheese producers, compared to Maine’s 71, Vermont’s 65 and Wisconsin’s 38, according to Rector.
However, in terms of total cheese production, Maine doesn’t even rank in the top five states. There was 10.6 billion pounds of cheese produced in this country in 2011, with Wisconsin producing 24.9 percent of it, followed by California (21.2 percent), Idaho (7.9 percent), New Mexico (7 percent) and New York (6.9 percent), according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Thanks to Maine’s artisanal producers, though, cheese lovers can now easily find locally made delicacies, including creamy camemberts, clothbound cheddars, nutty Swiss and pungent blues at farmers markets, specialty stores and large grocery store chains alike.
“I want to have good, quality cheese from milk in Maine that we love to eat,” Cathe Morrill, a former banker who purchased State of Maine Cheese Co. from Mudge in 1996, said recently.
She sells 75,000 pounds of cheese a year, making her company one of the largest in the state.
“Cheese making, to me, it’s such an incredible art and science. I think it’s truly art. You’re taking something and turning it into a beautiful, wonderful thing to enjoy.”
But although gourmands can enjoy many delicious, locally made cheeses in Maine, what they can’t find is a large producer of Maine cheese, in the model of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative in nearby Vermont.
Mudge said this is a missed opportunity that dates back to Reagan-era programs designed to stabilize commodity milk prices. Before these programs took root here, his company’s sharp, mild and flavored cheddars and jack cheeses, packaged to be competitive with Kraft, were selling well. They had even won the private-label contract for Hannaford. He had plans to produce a million pounds of cheese a year.
But the government got in the way, he said. Many older Maine dairy farmers elected to be part of the federal government’s whole-herd buyback program, selling all their cows and signing an agreement that they wouldn’t go back to dairy farming for five years. Before the 1980s-era buyback program, Maine had about 1,600 dairy farms, according to the Maine Dairy Industry Association. By 2001, that number had dropped precipitously to just 460.
“There were big repercussions in terms of the dairy industry in the state,” Mudge said. “We could no longer get enough milk to satisfy the Hannaford contract. That was quite disappointing. A lot of the cheese makers you have now — including State of Maine Cheese Co. — are emphasizing a local, quality product. I don’t think they feel they have an impact on the milkshed in the state of Maine. That’s what I wanted to do.”
But Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said all the small cheese makers are having an impact, as well as offering hope to dairy farmers. There are 299 dairy farms left in the state, with farmers currently struggling with skyrocketing cost for animal feed and another poor growing season, weather-wise.
“Right now, it’s one of the growth sectors we have,” Bickford said Thursday about cheese. “The amount of milk that’s used in the cheese making at this stage — we’re not talking about a lot of milk. However, because it’s a growing industry, there’s potential. That’s how we look at it. Start small, see if you can make a good product, find a market and grow from there. … We’re always hopeful that maybe one or two of these cheese makers will want to expand, and start taking on more milk going forward.”
But many cheese makers are not interested in getting bigger, according to Barbara Skapa of Echo Ridge Farmstead Cheese in New Vernon. She spoke Thursday about her experiences while stirring a big pot of milk she’ll use to make Reblochon, a washed-rind stinky French cheese that she said is delicious — and pretty much sold before it’s made.
Skapa worked for the United Nations at the World Bank before getting into cheese making eight years ago as a second career, and described her home-based business as small but satisfactory.
“It’s a business that does quite well, and I love doing it — and I don’t want to expand it,” she said. “I think what you’ve got are these creameries run by people who are quite well off. Hobby farmers.”
She said she understands the pressures on dairy farmers and recently had to find a new milk supplier after her “wonderful” local dairy farm closed.
“That’s one more farm that’s gone under,” she said sorrowfully.
Skapa believes that the state of Maine could do more for its cheese industry, especially when contrasted with Vermont, which has offered an artisan cheese making institute through its state university system.
“They have the research. They promote nationwide their cheese. They really, really, really get behind their cheesemaking,” she said. “I would like to see more apprentice programs [in Maine]. And I would like to see the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Dairy Council get more behind dairy.”
Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, also co-owns his family dairy farm in Waldo. He said that he foresees continued growth for the state’s cheese making industry — though he does not believe it is likely to create a lot of large cheese companies that will compete on the national scale.
“Maine has trouble being a low-priced competitor,” he said. “We make good cheese. We can’t make it cheaper than anybody else. Everything costs more up here.”
The state does work with dairies and creameries to give them needed technical support, to help with licensing and to provide statewide promotion. Even so, the government can’t change realities such as the state’s small population, which limits local market possibilities, this spring’s rainy weather or the fact that Maine has far fewer dairy cows than are found out west.
He recounted an anecdote about Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to woo a large, national Greek yogurt producer to build a factory in Maine. The yogurt maker was blunt, Whitcomb said.
“The fellow said, ‘I would use up your year’s milk production in two days,’” he said. “So that’s not going to happen.”
What could happen is something quite opposite.
“In a way, the future’s going back,” Whitcomb said, talking about some current milk producers making door-to-door deliveries to enthusiastic Mainers. “If we create a recognizable, consistent brand locally and occasionally pay more for Maine products as opposed to something that’s grown in the southwest desert. I think it’s exciting. There’s no indication that the increase will diminish anytime soon.”