Several years ago, when Will Sissle was still living in his home state of California, he answered a Craigslist job ad that would set him on the path toward the rest of his life.
The job was at a dairy, “lugging milk around,” Sissle said. But it eventually led to another role as a cheese distributor. He was soon making deliveries to Michelin Star restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area.
“It was just so interesting, I’d go to cheese shops in San Francisco and see who I’d perceive as hip, young people just hiding behind wheels of cheese on a counter,” he said. “The wheels were so beautiful. It was so random, but I fell in love.”
Sissle, 32, is now head cheesemonger at The Cheese Shop of Portland on Washington Avenue, which he has owned with his wife and fellow cheesemonger, Mary, for three years. As the national dairy industry goes through changes, the Sissles are part of an unorthodox surge of young people who have become involved in – and will likely be the future of – Maine’s cheese industry.
Heather Donahue, secretary of the Maine Cheese Guild – which will host its first Maine Cheese Festival in two years on Sept. 12 in Pittsfield – said the state’s cheese industry is bucking the trend in terms of who is making cheese, in part due to a wealth of educational resources here that make it a welcoming place for newbies to get started.
A key resource, Donahue said, is an apprenticeship program run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which attracts a young crowd interested not only in cheesemaking but farming in general.
“Our age for farming in Maine is dropping, it’s below the national average which is (people in their upper 50s),” she said. “We’re kind of going in the opposite direction.”
Maine also has a unique set of guidelines around cheesemaking that make it a more profitable place for small distributors than other parts of the U.S.
A time of change, growth
Donahue, who runs Balfour Farm in Pittsfield, knows a thing or two about dairy farming.
She and her husband got their start in the industry on a farm in New York but moved to Maine to be closer to their family when their daughters went to college in 2010.
She said the dairy industry, in general, is at a turning point, with the surge of popularity in recent years of nondairy alternatives like almond and oat milks. But dairy farmers in the Northeast are hurting for another reason.
Danone, the parent company of Horizon Organic, in late August notified farmers that nearly 90 farms in the region would lose their contracts with the company starting in August of 2022.
Donahue said dozens of farms in Maine will be affected, and it will have a chain reaction on companies that are connected to farms, such as tractor dealers and grain suppliers.
With Maine’s recent surge in popularity and housing crunch, it could also lead to more prime farmland being sold for development.
“Some people are just going to retire, some of them are just ready, but a lot of people don’t have another generation to come along,” she said. “So there’s a real risk of this farmland, some of it prime farmland, (being developed).”
Donahue said she is fortunate because her farm now processes all of its milk on-site, meaning it makes cheese and yogurt without having to ship or bottle it.
And unlike many other states, she added, Maine allows farmers to bottle their raw milk and sell it either at the farm or at farmer’s markets or retail stores.
Maine is also unique because of the way it allows cheesemakers to make their cheese, which Donahue said has helped open the door for smaller and new cheesemakers to make higher volumes of cheese to sell.
Farmers can test the temperature of their cheese through a simple method called heat treatment, which involves inserting a thermometer into the cheese instead of using expensive pasteurizing equipment.
But because the federal government does not recognize heat treatment as a “valid treatment of milk,” Donahue said, cheese made that way in Maine cannot be shipped across state lines unless it is first aged for at least 60 days.
Many small cheesemakers in Maine, she said, are making cheese in five- or 10-gallon pots on their stovetops at home.
“(Heat treatment) allows very small scale cheesemakers to be very successful and a very valid business and they also don’t need to invest $30,000 or more in an actual pasteurizing system,” she said.
The Maine Cheese Guild also assists new cheesemakers in their endeavors.
President Holly Aker last week said it was meeting a Maine cheesemaker a couple of years ago that first inspired her to get involved with the guild. The cheesemaker told Aker about her family farm that had been in existence for seven generations and shared the stress of trying to figure out how to market its cheese.
That inspired Aker, who is an American Cheese Society cheese professional – essentially a sommelier for cheese – to get involved.
“(I started investigating) some of the barriers preventing her from being able to grow or be successful (and how I could) make her life even the smallest bit easier,” Aker said. “I dug in from there working with different cheesemakers throughout the day.”
Aker, who also co-owns the Congress Street restaurant Broken Arrow, began advising cheesemakers on how they could scale up from retail, along with consulting work on things like creating food safety plans.
Donahue joined the Maine Cheese Guild immediately upon moving to Maine from New York 11 years ago and said it was “instrumental” in providing her with classes and resources about cheese.
“I joined the Cheese Guild and that’s how I met a lot of people, I took some cheesemaking classes because we didn’t do any of this when we lived in New York, we just shipped our milk,” she said. “So we had to learn everything from scratch when we got here.”
The festival and beyond
Donahue has also had a hand in planning the Maine Cheese Festival, which she said she hopes will happen despite the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. The guild began planning the festival, its biggest fundraiser, in January. It will be held at spacious Manson Park in Pittsfield.
The main complaint from patrons regarding the 2019 Maine Cheese Festival in Freeport, she added, was that it was too crowded. This year’s event will be split into two segments, each with room for 600 people, with a break in between for vendors to sanitize everything. To promote social distancing the festival also will not be busing people in from the parking area.
There will be live music, beer, wine and cider tastings, food trucks, goats to pet, educational talks with cheesemakers like Donahue and, of course, free samples of Maine cheese – although, Donahue added, sampling this year will be a bit more “reserved” than it has been in years past due to the pandemic.
“This time you’ll have to interact with us a bit more and not just drive by and pick up bits of cheese,” Donahue said. “You’ll have to say ‘Oh I want to try this.’”
The crowd at this year’s festival will be smaller than it was in 2019 when Donahue said the guild sold 2,200 tickets, and people are encouraged to buy their tickets online in advance at mainecheesefestival.org.
Donahue added that despite events such as the Common Ground Country Fair recently being canceled, she feels “really good” about how the cheese festival will be set up for safety. She also said the cheese festival is a much smaller operation than the Common Ground Fair, requiring only 40 volunteers compared with 2,000.
Donahue said the festival also serves to get the word out about Maine cheese.
“Maine cheese is really incredible, and the world doesn’t quite know about it yet,” she said. “But we’re working really hard to make people see just how talented our cheesemakers are.”
Cheeses, meats, veggies on board
Graham Young is another young Mainer getting involved in the state’s cheese industry in a different way.
Young and his girlfriend will soon launch The Portland Board, a charcuterie board food truck.
Young said he and his partner were inspired to start the business during quarantine, when they both began putting together a lot of charcuterie boards. He realized, however, the food selections can be expensive and wondered if there might be a way to bring the experience to Portlanders more affordably.
They purchased a 1979 VW Bus, which is being transformed from what Young called its “disgusting” original brown and orange color scheme to a more pleasing blue and white. The inside of the vehicle will be fully refrigerated to carry cheese, meat, jams, and a variety of other items for sale.
Young is a native Mainer who moved to California about a decade ago to get involved in the cannabis industry. After returning to Maine three years ago he became a founding partner of the Exhale Cannabis Co., a delivery service.
The Portland Board is his way of getting involved in Portland’s food industry, he said, and forging a career path that’s “a little more stable” than cannabis.
The Portland Board’s charcuterie boards will offer a variety of components, including a vegan selection, and come in different sizes, with a portion for two people costing around $20. The truck will initially be parked at Root Wild Kombucha on Washington Avenue, and Young said he hopes to have the truck operating in the next few weeks.
“Everyone gravitates towards charcuterie boards and that’s the beauty of it, it really creates its own experience,” he said. “Hopefully (The Portland Board) will bring people together to try new things.”
— Elizabeth Clemente