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Overcoming the economic strain on dairy farms, The Milkhouse creamery in Monmouth taps into the yogurt market and runs with it

Somewhere around 6000 B.C., Neolithic herdsmen in Central Asia discovered that the milk they stored in bags made of animal stomachs reacted with the enzymes from the skins, causing the milk to curdle. But it tasted good. And just like that, yogurt, rich in nutrients and high in protein, was born.

Eight thousand-plus years later, the recipe is essentially the same. “Just two ingredients, milk and live active cultures,” says Maine yogurt producer Caitlin Frame of The Milkhouse, an organic creamery in Monmouth. But yogurt has evolved in a myriad of ways. In Maine, consumer interest in local products, combined with dairy farmers innovating with new value-added products as their agricultural sector struggles, has given birth to a boomlet of new yogurt makers.

The Jersey cows Caitlin Frame milks yield a creamy, fatty milk, which makes for a richer yogurt. Plus, as Frame says “they’re fairy-tale cows,” big eyes, sweet faces. Photo by Bonnie Durham

They’re flavoring it with Maine-made maple syrup. They’re straining it into thick, creamy Greek yogurt and mixing it with wild Maine blueberries. Any health food store or cooperative in the state worth its salt seems to have at least three Maine-made yogurts on its refrigerated shelves. And in the case of Frame and her partner, Andy Smith, their farmstead product is finding bigger markets. Last summer Milkhouse started supplying Hannaford, making Milkhouse a major success story in a time of dwindling returns for most dairy farmers.

Since 2000, Maine has lost more than half its dairy farms, dropping from 483 that year to a current level of 235, the bulk of which produce and ship milk to Maine’s four major fluid processors in Portland, Westbrook and Houlton. At least 13 of those farms produce milk and process and sell it directly to consumers, including The Milkhouse. Milk prices continue to fall and it has become harder for smaller farms in more far flung corners of the state to find haulers willing to pick their milk. Adding to the pressure, says Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, is consolidation of processing and retailing at the national level. Maine farmers have three choices in how they respond, Bickford says, try to gain efficiencies, exit the industry or diversifying.

Experimenting with value-added products is one way of diversifying. According to Bickford, Maine has over 150 licensed milk processors who make value-added products, from ice cream to buttermilk, cheese to butter. And yogurt. The Milkhouse lost its wholesale organic milk contract with Horizon right around the time it gained one with Hannaford to sell yogurt. Making yogurt is not a solution for all by any means (with 71 million gallons of milk produced in Maine in 2018, that would be a lot of yogurt) but for some it is a bright spot. Or as Jacki Perkins, Organic Dairy Specialist for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), puts it, a “logical choice,” particularly for small farms looking to take advantage of consumer passion for farm-to-table foods.

Farmer Caitlin Frame of The Milkhouse in Monmouth, and her son Linus, greet the day. The Milkhouse has successfully scaled up its artisanal, organic yogurt production and is now selling at Hannafords throughout the state. Photo by Bonnie Durham

There is high demand for other locally sourced dairy products such as artisanal cheeses, Perkins explains, even as fluid milk consumption continues to drop in the United States. But aging cheese takes time while milk production, even in the smallest dairy, is unrelenting. “The micro-dairies needed income from the dairy before the aging process of the cheese was complete,” says Perkins. “Most other dairy products with short production time, like butter or ice cream, utilize primarily, or even exclusively, the cream, and producers are left with the conundrum of what to do with the skim milk.”

Yogurt to the rescue. It’s relatively fast and easy to make. For such a simple product, the health benefits read like a nutritionist’s dream. Yogurt can boost the immune system, maintain blood pressure and calm an irritable bowel. It’s said to help sick bodies heal and doctors recommend it to anyone coming off antibiotics, to rebalance the gut. Because it is rich in calcium, yogurt strengthens teeth and bones as well as helping to prevent osteoporosis. Yogurt has even been shown to increase longevity, in this case not just in those who eat it, but for the farms that make it.

At Hannaford markets throughout the state, The Milkhouse whole milk yogurt, including flavors such as maple and blueberry sit next to nationally known brands and costs almost the same as several of them (with a deposit for the bottle). The Milkhouse is the only local, farmstead yogurt Hannaford carries in Maine (in Vermont, Hannaford stocks Butterworks, a local Vermont yogurt) according to Hannaford’s manager of external communications, Erika Dodge. But maybe not for long.

“We are seeing increased consumer interest in products like The Milkhouse yogurt, and are always exploring opportunities to work with more local producers,” Dodge says.

There are plenty of them out there. Frame knows many of her fellow farmers and creamery owners. “Maine has a wonderful community of people who are working with milk,” she says. She even collaborates with some, including Grace Pond Farm (they’ve kept their herds together, although Grace Pond is soon moving to Thomaston). Some of the milk from the farm, up to 400 gallons of milk a week, goes to cheesemakers, including Swallowtail and Fuzzy Udder in Whitefield and Winter Hill Farm in Freeport. Maine does have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to small organic farms producing high quality dairy products. (See list on page 65)

It’s that quality, as well as the allure of local purveyors, that attracts retailers. At the Portland Food Co-Op, Kevin Gray, the store’s dairy and meat buyer, carries yogurt from The Milkhouse, as well as Swallowtail Farm, Balfour Farm,Tourmaline Hill Farm and Winter Hill Farm. “It excites me to see local producers getting a larger audience beyond the farm stand or farmers markets,” Gray says. “I love the fact that I know these farmers. They deliver their products themselves. If there’s a problem I can call them.”

Photo by Bonnie Durham

Frame will pick up. She’s managing The Milkhouse’s growth carefully, but wants to expand sales, including to school districts and colleges. “I’m really excited about selling yogurt to more institutions,” she says. “I love that we’ve had the opportunity to grow our business and feed more people in Maine. I really believe in the quality of the food we produce. I truly believe that milk is not just milk, a pork chop is not just a pork chop. The way animals are raised, the quality of they food that they eat, those things truly affect the nutritional quality and taste of the resulting milk or meat.”

Many dairy farmers grow up on a family farm but Frame, despite her success, has been in this business less than a decade. Her first experience with working the land came from gardening with her family growing up in Rochester, New York, her basic skills gleaned from working alongside both of her grandmothers’ extensive flower and vegetable gardens. She went on to start a garden of her own when she was in middle school and worked it with her mother.

Her light bulb moment was at Skidmore College when she took a basic introduction to environmental studies course. It inspired her to look at the world around her in a new and more critical way, bringing the reality of environmental degradation into sharp focus, and honing her commitment to sustainable food systems. Her professional journey began at an organic vegetable farm near her college. “It was winter, so I worked in the hoop houses, gently removing layers of row cover and harvesting tender greens and scallions in the dead of winter,” she remembers. “The sheer physicality of the work felt like magic. Plants became food as they were removed from the ground and passed through my hands.”

During that time, Frame also worked the farmers’ market, where she sold the farm’s storage vegetables and greens from their hoop houses. “I was enthused, to put it mildly,” she says. “I would cut open the blue and red potatoes for the children of customers, tell how I’d harvested this mesclun mix the day before. I would eat bags of greens plain on the way home from market. I may have been a bit fanatical.”

Photo by Bonnie Durham

In 2010 Frame moved to central Maine to work on a small vegetable farm where her enthusiasm was tempered by the vicissitudes of everyday farm life and the grinding work of market gardening. The realities of a life committed to farming were beginning to take hold. Her relationship with Andy Smith, who she met through mutual friends, was in its early stages. He was working on a diversified farm in Freedom. Among the animals he tended at the farm, Smith became particularly close to an ornery cow named Lucy and her calf Lupe. They taught Andy the ins and outs of working with bovines, including the fact that each cow has her own distinct personality.

“Andy and I went on to manage a micro dairy in Lincolnville,” says Frame. “We were responsible for the care and keeping of a large vegetable garden, small apple orchards, 12 cows, a handful of sheep, three pigs, ducks, laying hens, a horse and a pony.” They experienced a little bit of everything. “We were milking cows, making cheese and yogurt, bottling raw milk, as well as working with all these different animals.”

In 2012 the couple moved to Two Loons Farm in South China, an organic dairy run by Paige Tyson and Spencer Aitel. Both are first generation farmers in their 60s, with plenty of received wisdom to pass onto Frame and Smith. They gave the younger couple the go-ahead to reanimate the farm’s old milk room. After months of clearing, cleaning, painting and plumbing, Frame and Smith got their state dairy license. The Milkroom started selling yogurt to their first accounts in January of 2013. Not long after, they began looking for a farm of their own, where they could continue with the yogurt business, but also milk their own cows. In 2015 they made the move to Monmouth. Three years later, with the Hannaford account secured, their yogurt became the most widely distributed Maine-made artisanal yogurt in the state.

The Milkhouse turns out up to 600 gallons of yogurt a week during the summer and about 350 in winter. Photo by Bonnie Durham

Frame believes that the core magic lies in what kind of milk is used. The couple, who live on the farm with their young son Linus, milk Jerseys. Frame calls them “fairytale cows” for their relatively small size and their cartoonishly large, soulful eyes. Jerseys have high component milk, meaning it is rich in fat and protein, much more so than milk from their larger sisters, the Holsteins. “Fat is flavor, ” she explains. But it’s not just the breed that matters. “Different levels of quality and taste depend on an individual’s style of management and farming,” Frame says.

There is a rhythm to the days at The Milkhouse, a rhythm dictated by the demands of each season and the needs of the livestock. There are usually four full-time and one part-time employees helping out at any given time. The cows are milked twice a day, at about 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. “We have a pipeline that diverts the milk from the cows right into our bulk tank, where the milk is cooled down to 35 degrees in about a half hour,” Frame says. From there, “it drops into our vat pasteurizer, where the milk is heated, cooled and cultured, then put into containers to incubate for five hours. It then it goes into our walk-in.”

Some of it gets bottled as milk for farm sales, about 150 gallons of milk a week. They make yogurt five times a week, about 350 gallons of it per week in the winter and up to 600 gallons in the summer. Additives tend to be things like maple syrup. “Most commercial yogurts use thickeners and stabilizers like powdered milk or xanthum gum,” Frame said. A yogurt like the ones Milkhouse makes is a far simpler, purer product. “It doesn’t have to be highly processed and it doesn’t need sugar. It’s the quality and unique flavor of the milk that makes it so good.”

Frame doesn’t hesitate when asked what she likes best about her life at The Milkhouse. “I love that we are a farmstead business. We produce milk, a raw product, that we turn into yogurt and bottled milk, value-added products. And I love that it all happens here on the farm.”

Photo by Bonnie Durham

KNOW YOUR YOGURT

Traditional Yogurt has a light, creamy consistency and a mild taste. It typically takes about one cup of raw milk to get one cup of traditional yogurt.

Greek Yogurt has a tangier taste and thicker texture. It also has more than twice the protein of traditional yogurt. It takes about 4 cups of raw milk to make one cup of Greek yogurt.

Icelandic Yogurt or Skyr similar in texture to Greek yogurt and has a similar nutrition profile—high in protein, but it is thicker and slightly less tangy.

Kefir is often sold as a beverage and has a much thinner consistency than traditional or Greek yogurt. It retains that distinct yogurt tang and is slightly effervescent. Kefir has more than three times the probiotic cultures than yogurt.

Non-Dairy Yogurt whether made with soy, almonds, coconuts, or cashew, non-dairy yogurt incorporates the same cultures that go into dairy yogurts. They have a similar nutritional profile to dairy yogurt, but have the added benefit of fiber.

MAINE CREAMERIES THAT MAKE SMALL BATCH OR ARTISANAL YOGURT

Balfour Farm, Pittsfield
balfourfarmdairy.com

Smiling Hill Farm, Westbrook
smilinghill.com

Swallowtail Farm, North Whitefield
swallowtailfarmandcreamery.com

The Milkhouse, Monmouth
mainemilkhouse.com

Tide Mill Organic Farm, Edmunds
tidemillorganicfarm.com

Toddy Pond Farm, Monroe
toddypondfarm.com

Tourmaline Hill Farm, Greenwood
tourmalinehillfarm.wordpress.com

Winter Hill Farm, Freeport
winterhillfarm.com

Candace Karu is a writer and passionate home cook who lives and works in a tiny apartment on Portland’s West End. Her life partners are three ill-behaved, exceedingly small dogs, who make up in attitude what they lack in size. When she’s not working, you can find Candace in the kitchen, at the gym, or on Maine’s roads and trails, running and photographing all the way home.