It wasn’t that long ago that cheese aficionados in Maine were limited to American cheese and not-very-sharp cheddar, but these days cheese counters are packed with varieties of goat cheese, blue-veined offerings and aged cheeses of many varieties. And among those likely to be found in Maine grocery stores are the offerings of Pineland Farms Creamery in New Gloucester.
Just a decade after the nonprofit Libra Foundation started the creamery at the Pineland complex in New Gloucester, it has become the only Maine cheesemaker that competes on a national scale. You can find it in stores all over the eastern part of the country, and the creamery easily produces the lion’s share of all cheeses made in the state.
“We have the resources that allow us to compete with major players nationally,” Bill Haggett, the president and chief executive officer of Pineland Farms Inc., said this week. “We compete with Cabot [Creamery of Vermont], and we think that our quality is certainly competitive. As a matter of fact, we like our cheeses better than theirs.”
Pineland’s size sets it apart from the rest of the state’s cheesemakers, most of whom make cheese on a small scale on their farms or in their creameries. Its story is also unusual. The award-winning creamery is located at the former home of the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, which served as the state’s shelter for mentally disabled people from 1908 to 1996, when it was closed and abandoned by the state.
The dilapidated campus was in terrible disrepair when it was purchased and resurrected by the Libra Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation created by the late Elizabeth Noyce in 1989. Pineland Farms now is a 5,000-acre working farm, diverse business campus and educational and recreational venue. The creamery was begun in 2005 as a way to use the milk produced by the farm’s herd of registered Holstein cows, and the cheese made there sold well.
Haggett said that several years ago, the for-profit Pineland Farms Potato Co. purchased the cheese operation from the Libra Foundation. The cheese company was merged into the Aroostook-County based potato company, which he said is substantially larger than the creamery. Now, while the cheese is made at the New Gloucester dairy, it is moved up to the company’s Mars Hill facility to be stored, cut and packaged. About 30 people work in the cheese part of the company, he said. Another part of the Pineland Farms Inc. family of businesses is Pineland Farms Natural Meats, which came about when Libra purchased the Wolfe’s Neck Farm beef operation in 2005.
“The cheese company is very solid. It specializes in high-end products,” Haggett said. “We’re hoping and we’re working toward continued growth. We want the business to grow, and we expect to be reaching out further with our sales nationally.”
That would likely benefit the Maine cheese industry as a whole, according to Eric Rector, the president of the Maine Cheese Guild and the owner of the Monroe Cheese Studio.
“The success of Pineland Farms is good. They create visibility, as Cabot does in Vermont,” he said. “Pineland gets the word out. ‘Hey, they’re making cheese in Maine.’ It’s a great flag for Maine cheese, even though what they’re doing is very different from the rest of us.”
That opinion isn’t universally shared, though. Lucien Smith of the Smith Family Farm in Bar Harbor said that he first learned about Pineland Farms Creamery when he found a menu from a Mount Desert Island restaurant that had blown onto his field. Pineland Farms was mentioned as the provider of a cheese for the local cheese plate.
“I’m scratching my head,” Smith, whose wife, Maggie, makes bloomy-rind cheeses at their small farm, said. “I didn’t know where Pineland Farms was. How local could it be?”
He looked into the Maine company, and thought that its roots as a nonprofit run by a foundation with deep pockets gave it an unfair advantage over other, smaller Maine cheesemakers that don’t have the resources to build top-of-the-line dairies to make their products.
“It’s competing in the same market space. I don’t know how it can’t be an unfair competition,” he said.
Rector said that the cheesemaking scene in Maine has changed a lot since the 19th century. At that time, creameries were built in many towns and cities as a place for dairy farmers to bring their raw milk and turn it into something more shelf-stable. The state had a large tradition of cheesemaking. But that shifted at the beginning of the 20th century, when many of the town creameries shut down and the state lost a lot of its cheesemaking traditions.
“There was not a lot of cheese, until the back-to-the-landers came in the 1970s and a bunch of them got dairy animals. That’s when the modern cheesemaking history of Maine begins,” he said. “With pioneers in the back-to-the-land movement getting a few goats.”
In the last 30 years, the numbers of licensed Maine cheesemakers has risen from just eight cheesemakers in the mid-1990s to 72 today, a number that is a lot larger than the 48 cheesemaking members of the Vermont Cheese Council. But Maine produces much less cheese — roughly 1 million pounds annually, Rector said. About 750,000 pounds of that is made by Pineland Farms, he said. The low production and high numbers of cheesemakers ought to mean there is room to grow, he said.
“Right now, Maine — including Pineland Farms — is producing less than 3 percent of the total cheese that Mainers consume each year,” he said. “There’s a tremendous potential for growth.”
But the hardship he and other Maine cheesemakers face is that it is a fairly young industry here, and the basic infrastructure is still being developed.
“All these cheesemakers are doing direct sales to restaurants and at farmers markets,” he said. “Our challenge is just to take it to the next level. Is there ever going to be a speciality cheese distributor in Maine? To me, that’s the next step.”
Such a distributor would market the cheeses and also figure out how to effectively get them from the farms and dairies to the stores. The cheesemakers could join forces to hire a person to do this, he said, or it could be a private entrepreneur.
“It’s going to take a special person who understands cheese and cheesemakers,” Rector said, adding that he believes this will happen in the next five years or so.
Until then, Pineland Farms will continue to reach out around the country searching to expand the market for its cheeses, which include spreadable horseradish cheddar, spreadable bacon swiss, feta cheese crumbles and handcrafted blocks of cheddar and Monterey Jack.
“It’s a multimillion-dollar-a-year business,” Haggett said. “If the state of Maine operated exclusively with the small cheese producers, for example, it would be very difficult for the economy of the state to grow, and for those producers to reach out to the larger markets. We don’t see ourselves competing directly to pull business away from small producers in Maine at all. We want the small producers to prosper, to thrive, and hopefully to grow.”