Whitefield farmer and cheesemaker Jessie Dowling was elected president of the Maine Cheese Guild last November. The owner of Fuzzy Udder creamery jumped right into the political side of the job, speaking on behalf of the guild at State House hearings on two controversial food sovereignty bills (including one that is now law). We called her up to get her take on everything from food sovereignty to the climate change-themed names of her cheeses to what her plans are for the future (big).

Dowling grew up in Arlington, Virginia, but came to Maine for high school in the 1990s. “I didn’t do well,” she said of school in Virginia. “So I ended up at Hyde,” which is known for helping struggling teenagers turn their lives around. Back then, Dowling said, tough love was part of the cure. “It sure made me strong and good at doing physical labor.” It also set her up for acceptance to Scripps College, one of California’s Claremont Colleges, where she was involved in two things that changed her outlook on everything.

GUERRILLA GARDENING: The first was taking part in a guerrilla gardening effort on campus, where students planted fruit trees and produce, hoping to feed themselves and the homeless. “We were building an eco-dome to keep tools in,” she said, but it was bulldozed, “because we didn’t have a permit.” The battle of the garden resolved with the university embracing it and even allowing the construction of the dome. “That was my first experience with community gardening. It was really inspirational.” She returned not long ago and saw the fruits of her labors – literally fruit trees that she remembers as shoulder height – “now towering over my head.” The second game-changer happened when the college student traveled to Black Mesa, Arizona, to volunteer at protests against Peabody Energy over the coal company’s abuse of water resources on Navajo land. “Seeing the water being dried up because of the Peabody coal mine, that was like, ‘Oh my God, corporations are affecting basic human water rights,’ and that solidified for me my entire life plan.”

LONDON CALLING: It struck her that growing food was a way to connect with people directly, outside the corporate structure of America. After a brief foray into solar panel installation in Los Angeles, she came back East and got a job as a farm manager at a vegetable farm in Virginia. “I discovered I didn’t like vegetable farming.” How come? “Weeding all day burns your knees out.” In 2004 she took a internship at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, which files a lot of lawsuits against GMO-giant Monsanto, further developing her interest in food policy. She signed up for a three-week food policy course at Schumacher College in England, studying with environmental activists (and her personal heroes) Vandana Shiva and Winona LaDuke and ended up staying in England and getting a masters degree in food policy from City University in London.

UDDER JOY: Back in the United States, she worked with the Community Food Security Coalition on the 2007 farm bill, but felt stymied by the lack of success in truly influencing the Farm Bill. It seemed like a better idea to just start farming. Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” had just come out, and given her lack of interest in weeding, something diversified, with livestock, appealed. Surprisingly. “Because of course I had been a vegan/vegetarian for years,” she said, laughing. Maine was also enticing – that Hyde experience had created a connection. Browsing apprenticeships on the MOFGA website, she kept being drawn to dairy farms. Her apprenticeship with cheesemaker Caitlin Owen Hunter at Appleton Creamery, had a huge impact. “Best boss I ever had.” And best gig. “I found out that I can make cheese for 12 hours a day and not hate it.” She worked there for four years, and Hunter gave a start on developing her own line under the Fuzzy Udder name.

Jessie Dowling, the new president of the Maine Cheese Guild, packs a cheese called Windswept in the creamery at her Whitefield farm. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

IT’S ALL IN THE NAME: Dowling shared land in Unity with South Paw Farm for the first few years. Then in 2013 she learned about a property for sale in Whitefield, Townhouse Creamery, that specialized in sheep’s milk value-added products. It was just what Dowling wanted. She’s thriving there, producing 12 cheeses as well as yogurt, from her own goats and sheep. She brings in Jersey milk from another farmer. Her cheeses include Windswept (aged over six months), Cyclone, Frost Heave and The Tempest, which in 2016 won an award from the American Cheese Society. “All of them have weather term names because of my interest in climate change.” One cheese she’d really like to figure out how to make? The Italian La Tur. Experimenting is part of the fun. “With cheesemaking and with farming, the reward is that you get to keep doing it.”

PRIDE OF PLACE: Mainers may have been behind states like New York and Vermont in getting into cheesemaking, but the business is booming now. Dowling said there are 84 licensed cheesemakers in Maine, and 94 percent of that cheese is farmstead (meaning they produce their own milk for cheesemaking). “We have the second most cheesemakers (per capita) right now,” she said. Part of the Maine Cheese Guild’s mission is to raise awareness. “We want people to think, you come to Maine for the lobster but stay for the cheese.” Being in the mix on policy issues feels good, and Dowling says she hopes to continue with the creamery – she has five employees now – and simultaneously get back into food policy. “I’m not looking to run for offices. I am mostly interested in leading from experience. And fighting industrial agriculture.”

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: Dowling wants to encourage beginning cheesemakers. If you’ve got one cow milking and you want to sell a few gallons of milk or farmstead cheese as surplus to neighbors, via word of mouth, more power to you, she says. “I don’t think the feds should come down on you.” But getting into commercial sales? Liability issues stop her from endorsing that. Along with how easy the state of Maine makes it. “I cannot stress how easy it is to get a license in Maine.” She’s done it twice, in Unity and in Whitefield, on a shoestring budget and says the technical advice and testing that comes along with the $25 licensing fee can’t be beat. “They are like, ‘Cool, I will come out and walk you through everything and give you pointers.’ They are all about working with you and where you are at. I am not usually a proponent of states’ rules in anything, but we get a lot for that license.”

SAY CHEESE: Enough about policy, what is her dream version of grilled cheese? The bread would be sourdough from Sheepscot General Store. Some Ray’s mustard, maybe the Dundicott Hott. Half-sour pickles from Morse’s. Ruby Kraut from 30 Acre Farm. “We could put some Tempest on it and some Cyclone and then if you wanted a third cheese, you could put my fresh mozzarella on it. And maybe some fresh spinach too.” We’re in.

 

This article was edited for clarity on July 9 at 9:05 a.m.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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