There are over 80 artisan cheesemakers in Maine making a range of varieties, from feta to camembert to cheddar and beyond. Unless you’re in the state, though, you’re unlikely to get a taste of Maine’s wide diversity of cheeses. As Holly Aker, owner of Local Goods Gathered and President of the Maine Cheese Guild, put it, because of the state’s rural nature, limited distribution channels, and unique laws around pasteurization, only a small amount of cheese was leaving Maine.
Now, thanks to a Dairy Business Viability & Technical Assistance Grant from the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, Maine cheesemakers are beginning to find buyers across New England and rebound from the loss of sales due to pandemic closures of restaurants and the small scale of in-state retailers.
“When the pandemic hit, cheesemakers had a lot of excess cheese,” Holly said, “and I started getting calls from folks saying, ‘I have 70 wheels of camembert I can’t sell,’ and ‘I had to feed 50 wheels of blue cheese to my pigs,’ because they had suddenly lost their buyers.”
Seeing the need for a bridge between cheesemakers and buyers, Holly created Local Goods Gathered, an ecommerce retailer and food brokerage that procures value-added dairy products from Maine for distribution in the Northeast. With an eye toward relationships and resilience building, Holly applied for the NE-DBIC grant to further the goal of connecting Maine cheesemakers with greater New England.
“This grant is funding a new approach to how we create relationships between cheesemakers and retailers,” Holly said. With a funding timeline that stretches from April 2022 to October 2023, “the best part of this grant is that it allows us to be incredibly thoughtful. We’re able to have conversations to figure out what works for cheesemakers and distributors, how to set people up for success, and identify challenges.”
Among those challenges is simply getting cheese to distributors. The combination of a perishable product and the fact that distributors won’t travel beyond Portland has Holly and Local Goods Gathered looking at creating a consolidation point for rural cheesemakers to deliver their products. Despite the many logistics of connecting rural producers with regional buyers, they’ve been making strides meeting with experts, organizing tastings with buyers, creating sell sheets, and supporting cheesemakers in sales.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this if we didn’t have a grant to support the research,” Holly said.
While they’re just over halfway through the grant timeline, they’ve already seen major accomplishments—including creating sell sheets for five creameries and selling over 3,000 units of cheese to buyers in Massachusetts— and identified new opportunities in ecommerce and regional distribution. Despite the relationship and capacity building Holly is leading, she prefers not to be in the spotlight.
“The cheesemakers are the ones with the talent who put in the hard work and make it all possible,” she said. “I’m just here to help them be more successful.”
As the project continues into 2023, one thing is already clear: this grant project is a win-win-win. As Maine cheesemakers expand into sustainable distribution channels throughout New England, consumers will benefit from the delicious variety of Maine dairy, cheesemakers will benefit from new sales channels, and our regional food system will benefit from strengthened relationships between farmers, distributors, and eaters. Keep an eye out for Maine cheese in your market!
The following Maine Creameries are collaborating with Local Goods Gathered and benefitting from the Dairy Business Viability & Technical Assistance Grant. Sell sheets have been created for the creameries with asterisks.
- Josh Pond*
- Winter Hill Farm*
- York Hill Creamery*
- Balfour Farm*
- Crooked Face Creamery*
- Kennebec Cheesery
- Flying Goat Farm
- Fuzzy Udder Creamery
- Pineland Farms Dairy
- Noisy Acres – in state only
- ChiGoBee Farm – in state only
- Silvery Moon Creamery
- Spring Day Creamery
- Springdale Farm
- State of Maine Cheese Co.
Photo courtesy of Local Goods Gathered