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Three Cheers for Cheese

By John Piotti

August 8, 2013

Last Saturday, I attended a birthday party for a business. The State of Maine Cheese Company had turned thirty, and owner Cathe Morrill threw a party. It was her way to thank her customers and the farmers who supply her milk. It was also a way to recognize Taylor Mudge, the man who founded the company years before.

I was there for Maine Farmland Trust. Cathe—who is a big supporter of the Trust’s work—asked if we would have a booth at the event. She also asked if I could “say a few words” at a point in the day she had scheduled for that. I’d be joined by her and Taylor and Walt Whitcomb, the Waldo dairy farmer who now serves as Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture. Inviting the Commissioner to an event like this would be natural even if he was a potato farmer from Aroostook, but in this case, Cathe has a direct connection:  Walt’s farm supplies some of the milk Cathe uses to make cheese.

Cheesemaking in Maine has taken off in recent years.  Maine now boasts 71 cheesemakers, the highest number of any state except New York.  Yet Maine doesn’t come close to making the quantity of cheese as do states like New York, California, Wisconsin, and others. That’s because Maine is a state of small, artisan cheesemakers.  The quality is impressive.  Maine now produces some of the best cheese anywhere, and in wide varieties—cheddar, camembert, chevre, and so much more.

Producing 75,000 pounds of cheese a year, Cathe’s operation is large for Maine. And although the quality is great, the State of Maine Cheese Company is making a different kind of product than some of the Maine artisans who make cheese in very small batches and sell at farmers markets. I can buy Cathe’s cheddar or jack at Hannaford.  And I think of her cheeses as similar to what Cabot produces in Vermont—though better, because they are made here.

Cheesemaking at Cathe’s scale has a positive impact on Maine’s dairy farms.  Dairy farmers are struggling across the nation, due primarily to a faulty federal pricing system. (If you want details, see my April column “Milk: pure, but not so simple.”) Making more cheese here in Maine is one way to help our farmers.

Cathe Morrill bought the State of Maine Cheese Company seventeen years ago, at a time when few people saw much hope or promise in Maine agriculture. In fact, we now know from looking at the ag statistics that the mid 1990s was the bottom for Maine’s farms.  The numbers began to rise soon thereafter. Dairy farms are still struggling, but many other farms are now doing well—and new food-related businesses are growing fast. Today, local food is hot, even hip. But it wasn’t that way when Cathe began. I give her a lot credit.

I’ve worked with Cathe on and off during all of her years in the cheese business. Back when she began, I was running something called the Maine Farms Project, a program of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), which together with the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (MOFGA), helped spur Maine’s agricultural renaissance. Cathe got involved in the Eat Local Foods Coalition that I created with MOFGA’s Russell Libby. Later she joined and then chaired Maine’s Food Policy Council, a legislatively-created initiative designed to move Maine toward growing far more of its own food.  (Ironically, this Council was disbanded a few years ago, just as its goal of boosting Maine’s food production was beginning to resonate with more of the public. Fortunately, several other groups have now taken up that charge. In addition, the Muskie School of Public Policy at USM is now leading a comprehensive statewide food study that will outline policy steps Maine can take to further advance farming.)

If Cathe Morrill has been an early pioneer, Taylor Mudge has been a true trail-blazer.

Thirty years ago, Taylor was a sheep farmer in Lincolnville. Several of his neighbors were dairy farmers, and he saw both need and opportunity to get into cheese-making. Though there was once a time when local farmers made cheese, those days were long gone when Taylor formed the State of Maine Cheese Company. He was the first in this era.

I know Taylor well, having worked with him closely at Maine Farmland Trust, where he is an active board member. He’s smart, unassuming, and committed to farming. And like many farmers, he is also always experimenting. His latest adventure involves growing hops, and he is toying with starting a malting operation.

I‘m impressed by many Maine farmers, but some are true standouts. Walt Whitcomb is in that category. His family has been farming in the town of Waldo for generations, but it was not until Walt was managing the farm that federal dairy policy become so oppressing. His smarts have not only kept his farm together, but have advanced the policy debate in Washington. To the extent that there is some hope that federal dairy policy may finally be reformed, Walt deserves a lot of the credit.

With Walt’s appointment as Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture, he passed along key responsibilities at his farm to the next generation, which is pursuing innovations of their own—including selling meat at several farmers markets. Farmstead cheese could well be a next step.

Cathe, Taylor, and Walt are quite a trio. They have each done so much—and continue to do so much—for Maine agriculture. But though standouts, they are also representative of the vast number of highly creative farmers and food-makers all across this state.

I was proud to stand with the three of them last Saturday, to reflect and to celebrate.

John Piotti is executive director of Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar & Pearl” appears every other week.    

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