Heather and Doug Donahue left careers in teaching and construction behind to follow a dream of opening a dairy farm and cheese-making business in the rolling fields of Maine.
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The Donahues, who have run Balfour Farm in Pittsfield for four years, have that dream in common with dozens of small business owners in the suddenly cheese-crazy state. Maine has established itself as the state with the fastest-growing artisanal cheese industry in the country, and state agriculture officials said it's not slowing down.
"It's great to see the new people that are coming in all the time. It's really kind of exploding," said Heather Donahue, who used to teach middle school science in New Hampshire. "It's really great because Maine has a long history of dairy."
The number of retail cheesemakers in the state grew from 40 in 2010 to 80 this year, state officials said. And applications for more licenses are in the pipeline.
All this growth in cheese-making comes despite a decline in the total number of dairy farms in Maine. There were 271 in 2014, down from 358 in 2005 and more than 1,000 in 1980, state data show.
But the surge has tracked in line with a growing number of producers of raw milk, which some cheesemakers use to make cheese, said Linda Stahlnecker, the director of Maine's Milk Quality Lab. The number of raw milk producers grew from 15 in 2006 to 61 this year, driven at least in part by affordable farmland attracting new dairy operations, said Eric Rector, president of the Maine Cheese Guild.
Local cheese is also booming in Maine because of changing tastes, Stahlnecker said. Consumers like to know where their food comes from.
"People are increasingly interested in knowing what's in their food and knowing their farmers," Stahlnecker said. "It's a value-added product and it's really kind of fun."
Maine's number of artisan cheesemakers grew from about two dozen in 2006 to more than 70 in 2014, according to Jeffrey Roberts, the author of "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese" and principal consultant of the former Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont. Roberts uses the word "artisanal" to describe cheesemakers who work largely by hand.
Roberts said the growth reflects a broader trend around the country, with the largest number of artisanal cheese makers located in New York and Pennsylvania â€” though Maine is closing the gap. New York had 90 in 2014 and Pennsylvania had 94 in 2013, he said.
Roberts reported in a 2012 count that there were 825 artisan cheese makers in the country, more than double the total in 2006. He added there are likely close to 1,000 now. The growth is a result of interest in "good food that is a reflection of good farming," Roberts said.
Rector, who operates Monroe Cheese Studio in Monroe, said as many as 20 new cheese producers could come online in Maine by the end of the year. He said surpassing the number of artisan cheese makers in Vermont, a state that is known around the country for its cheese, was a major accomplishment for Maine's industry. Roberts said Vermont had 51 artisanal cheesemakers in 2014.
"Local food is a big movement," Rector said. "Small cheese makers here have benefited from people being more aware than they were ten years ago of the value of agriculture in our community."