Copper Tail Farm's Christelle McKee watches as her goats snack Dec. 1,2016, in Waldoboro. Her farm is one of nine creameries taking part in the new Midcoast Cheese Trail. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Midcoast Maine is dotted with cheesemakers, drawn to the state by the cheap, quality pasture and dairy-friendly Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that makes starting a creamery easy and inexpensive.

Maine’s dairy industry is struggling with falling demand and prices, but midcoast creameries have an advantage: an easily accessible location along the popular drive from Portland to Bar Harbor, and cute animals that visitors can interact with as they sample artisanal cheese.

Caitlin Hunter, co-owner of Appleton Creamery in Appleton, saw these advantages as an opportunity to bring agritourism to the Midcoast creameries, which boasted a delicious diversity of cheese: sweet soft goat chevre, creamy Jersey cow brie and moist water buffalo mozzarella.

“There’s a wine trail, there’s a beer trail, there’s an ice cream trail,” she remembered thinking. “There needs to be a cheese trail.”

The key to the midcoast’s agritourism success

Jim McConnon, extension business and economics specialist and professor of economics at the University of Maine, said that agritourism is a natural fit for Maine’s economy, especially for farmers looking to diversify.

“Agriculture is a very important part of our economy, and agritourism ties nicely into our tourism industry, which is a very important industry in and of itself,” McConnon explained.

The midcoast is uniquely positioned for agritourism success.

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“Location is very important,” said David Marcinkowski, associate professor and extension dairy specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “You have to be near a population center where people are vacationing in Maine. The coast is it.”

The trail model is especially effective for attracting new customers to rural areas.

“There are other kinds of trails that have been developed all across the country, food related and non-food related, that have shown to be successful in terms of bringing customers into rural areas and allowing those customers to help support the growth and development of those businesses,” McConnon said.

Starting the Midcoast Cheese Trail

In 2016, Hunter was awarded an Agricultural Development Grant from the Maine DACF to start the Appleton Cheese Trail, a precursor to what is now known as the Midcoast Cheese Trail.

Hunter collaborated with Jessica Farrar, co-owner of Maine Water Buffalo Co., Maine’s first and only water buffalo dairy, also located in Appleton. The grant funded a trail map, farm stand and educational events between the creameries to attract visitors to the farms.

The founders soon realized that they were missing an opportunity to work with creameries — as well as wineries and breweries, which could provide boozy pairings for creamy chevre and buffalo mozzarella — just beyond Appleton.

“We’re five minutes away from Savage Oaks [Vineyard & Winery] and 15 minutes away from Sweetgrass [Farm Winery & Distillery], Fuzzy Udder [Creamery] and Copper Tail [Farm],” Hunter explained. “People can really make a day of it.”

In 2017, the Appleton Cheese Trail became the Midcoast Cheese Trail. To be added to the trail map, the creamery must be located along the Midcoast (“anywhere from Bath to Belfast or Bucksport,” according to Hunter) and have dairy animals.

“We want to give the customer a rounder experience with the animals producing the milk,” Farrar said. “Our society has become disconnected from animals, and it seemed like a really great opportunity to start bringing people back.”

Jessie Dowling, owner of Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, was one of the first farms added when the trail expanded. Besides the fact that Dowling is the president of the Maine Cheese Guild and apprenticed with Hunter years ago, she was drawn to the experiential focus on the Midcoast Cheese Trail.

“Individuals coming to the farm are getting more than just a piece of cheese,” Dowling said. “You should see the look on people’s faces when you put a 4-year-old kid in a pen with a bunch of baby goats. It’s like magic.”

The Midcoast Cheese Trail encourages cross-promotion between cheesemakers, as well as the participating wineries and breweries. The coordinated marketing efforts are especially helpful for new farmers.

“It was another way to get our farm name out there,” said Christelle McKee, co-owner of Copper Tail Farm in Waldoboro. “If people Google ‘Maine cheese,’ the trail will come up and it’ll direct them to us.”

Besides a bump in revenue, the one-day events are also effective in attracting new customers to the farms. The cheesemakers said that customers who come out to the Midcoast Cheese Trail are more likely to buy their products in the future at farmers markets.

“We’ve heard a lot of good responses from people who are following the [Midcoast] Cheese Trail,” Farrar said. “Everybody is winning.”

All nine of the Midcoast Cheese Trail creameries will be participating in Open Farm Day on Sunday, July 28. Visitors who complete a Midcoast Cheese Trail passport will receive a prize.

The future of the Midcoast Cheese Trail

Right now, many of the Midcoast Cheese Trail’s visitors are from Maine.

“We have a fan club that follows the [Midcoast] Cheese Trail,” said Kelly Payson-Roopchand, owner of Pumpkin Vine Family Farm in Somerville. “At this point, we get people who are just cheese lovers, and a lot of them are Mainers.”

The creamery owners see the potential for the Midcoast Cheese Trail to attract more visitors from outside of Maine.

“I think it’s a really interesting thing for people who are coming from out of state,” Payson-Roopchand said. “That’s something we should definitely focus on more. I think it will naturally grow as the trail has more years behind it.”

The farmers involved hope that the Midcoast Cheese Trail will expand — maybe even beyond the midcoast.

“I think that every region should have its own regional trail,” Dowling said. “When we work together, it creates a new strain of tourism for our region. This is the tip of the iceberg of where we’re going with it.”