A dairy company tucked behind the Bangor International Airport has quietly become the largest cheese producer in Maine after arriving in the city roughly five years ago.
The Pineland Farms Dairy Co. made more than a million pounds of cheese — using 10 million pounds of milk — in its 70,000-square-foot facility on Milk Street in Bangor last year, and it plans to make 1.3 million pounds in 2023.
While Penobscot produces more milk than any other county in Maine, the loss of a major dairy company in 2013 forced local farmers to sell what they produced to plants in Portland, including Hood and Oakhurst. This also saddled farmers with the added cost of transportation, and the travel takes time out of the milk’s already short shelf life.
The Libra Foundation, a Portland-based nonprofit that owns Pineland Farms, bought and outfitted the Bangor facility with the intention of reigniting the local milk market, said Craig Denekas, Libra Foundation chair and CEO.
“The idea was ‘What are we going to do with dairy in Bangor in the next generation?’” Denekas said. “What’s going to happen to those farms and land if there’s no longer a market in Bangor? What the farmers really want to stay in business is to have a market for the product.”
Pineland Farms’ Bangor facility previously housed Grant’s Dairy before it was bought by Garelick Dairy in 1994. Garelick went bankrupt in early 2013. Every piece of equipment in the facility was sold, and the building sat vacant and fell into disrepair until 2017 when the Libra Foundation bought it.
The Libra Foundation invested tens of millions of dollars into refurbishing the facility, which required buying all new equipment for every step of the cheese-making process, Denekas said.
“It was a dead building,” Denekas said. “There wasn’t even functioning electrical. It was just a shell.”
Earle Taylor (left), head cheesemaker, holds slabs of cheese that will be milled into curds. Cheese curds (top right) are seen at Pineland Farms Dairy’s facility (bottom right) in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
One of the more complicated additions to the building included three large silos to hold the milk before it gets turned into cheese, which required a wall to be removed to fit them into the building.
The Libra Foundation also created the Pineland Farms Dairy Co., a for-profit offshoot of the original Pineland Farms enterprise, in 2017. The new company, based in the refurbished space, allowed Pineland Farms to consolidate and expand its cheese operations.
Previously, Pineland Farms made cheese in New Gloucester, then shipped it to Mars Hill to be aged, cut, wrapped, sold and shipped to customers. Now, the entire process happens in Bangor, but the New Gloucester campus still houses education and recreation operations, according to Mark Whitney, president and CEO of Pineland Farms Dairy Co.
Today, roughly 40 employees churn out more than a dozen different cheddar, jack, swiss, feta cheeses and curds, using milk from roughly 20 farmers within 50 miles of Bangor, Whitney said.
“Knowing their milk stays local and within the community I think gives our farmers a sense of pride in what they do,” Pineland Farms’ Head Cheesemaker Earle Taylor said.
The process of making cheese takes roughly from seven to eight hours for the milk to be tested, processed, turned into curds and pressed into a block of cheese where it then sits overnight, head cheesemaker Earle Taylor said. Once the curds have fused into one block, it ages in the cooler for anywhere from six months to five years.
After it’s packaged, Pineland Farms cheeses are shipped to stores throughout New England, including Hannaford, Market Basket and Whole Foods.
While the Bangor location also processes milk, Whitney said the company wasn’t interested in bottling it to be sold in grocery stores next to other Maine dairy companies. Instead, the company focuses on making cheese and “ingredient milk,” which is what other companies use in food products from baked goods to mashed potatoes.