“I tell everyone,” said Karen Trenholm, leaning on the edge of a cheese-making vat. “Believe me. Believe me!”

She is proselytizing about cheesemaking as a way out of the conundrum for dairy farmers in Maine: Higher feed prices for cattle, lower prices for milk leading to an increasingly small profit margin, if any, for the people who work day and night to keep their farms going and increasingly, are having to let their herds go. At last count this spring, there were 263 dairy farms shipping milk commercially. Two years ago there were 307. Fifteen years ago, about 500.

Sitting on a shelf nearby in Trenholm’s Winthrop creamery are manifestations of her family’s belief in a better future, two butter-yellow wheels of their freshly made Farmstead Chive, made from the milk of their small herd of Guernsey cows. Two more wheels float in brine. Across the room, Trenholm’s daughter Anne is wrapping Wholesome Holmstead’s Golden Etta, a feta, and their White Gold, a blooming rind, mild brie-like cheese, in white paper and sealing them with Wholesome Holmstead’s labels. These value-added products represent that rare thing in dairy, a growth opportunity, with artisanal cheeses bringing a far better price than the milk they’re made from.

The mother-daughter team are business partners, the mother reinventing herself and the family farm, after living through an era where the milking herd had to be sold, and the younger generation, just 30, handling the marketing, the social media and the trips to farmers markets. In the last year they hit the sweet spot with their business, with demand nicely lined up with supply and requests for their product coming from as far away as the Portland Food Co-op. To them, cheese is the future and could be for others as well.

“Hopefully we’re leading the way,” Anne Trenholm says.

CREAMERIES COMETH

Maine doesn’t have a rich history as a cheese mecca, and perhaps not yet a big reputation in a nation flush with new cheesemakers, but statewide, artisanal cheesemaking is on the rise. Requests for permits through the state’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation’s regulatory lab are in the record numbers (37 in the works or pending). “There’s this proliferation of folks who find Maine and easy place to get up and running with cheesemaking,” said Eric Rector, president of the Maine Cheese Guild. “We’ve got high-quality raw milk and a very welcoming customer base, especially at farmers markets, where you can get your full value.”

But more specifically, the Trenholms represent old dairy farming families where a new generation is moving or has moved into cheesemaking as a way to grow – or save – an old business.

Alison Leary, the daughter of Saco dairy farmer Tim Leary, is taking up the dairy mantle in Arundel with Alpen Rose, a creamery she’ll run with her fiancé Luke Patry. (He is a co-owner in another family dairy-related business, Kate’s Homemade Butter.) Amy Rowbottom, who successfully started Crooked Face Creamery with a former partner, recently moved back to her parents’ farm in Norridgewock to restart her business with a new emphasis on smoked cheese. Downeast in Edmunds, ninth generation Rachel Bell makes yogurt and cheeses from her goats and her cousin Aaron’s cows at Tide Mill creamery, a business she started in 2010. “We have just been growing each year,” Bell said. “We’re adding new accounts and selling more through the existing accounts we have.” And in Waldo, Carrie Whitcomb, the daughter of Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, just finished building a creamery at her house on the family farm, where her grandmother Lois still serves as the grand dame of Guernsey cows in New England and the family maintains a herd of 125 Jersey and Guernseys, prized for their high-protein, rich milk.

In the coming months, Carrie Whitcomb plans to fulfill a decades-long goal making and selling cheeses – cottage and cream to start. She hopes to eventually achieve a perfect triple creme cheese. She’s still debating whether to name the cheese business Stone Bridge, a reference to an old bridge behind her parents’ house, but for the time being will sell under the family label, Springdale (she already sells rose veal, pork and lamb at four Midcoast farmer’s markets.) Her family approves.

“Dad is all for it,” Whitcomb said. The family knows the grim outlook of dairy farming in today’s marketplace. Once upon a time, Carrie Whitcomb’s great grandparents made butter and sent it to Boston via train. It’s more complicated now.

“In dairy, there aren’t a lot of options,” Whitcomb said. “You can basically get bigger, figure out how to get better or diversify if you want to keep growing the business.” The Whitcombs pasture-graze in Waldo and always have. They could add more cows, but there isn’t enough land to graze them. “You’d just kind of dilute the effect of our grazing,” Whitcomb said.

One of the curious, wistful emotions a dairy farmer may experience if they ship their milk commercially is that moment when the truck come to collect the milk. “It is a little sad when the milk truck comes and it gets mixed in with everything,” Whitcomb said.

Cheesemaking keeps those distinct flavors intact. It also “lets you capture as much as you can from that nice product,” Eric Rector said, referring specifically to the value of the milk.

COMMON GROUND

These children of farmers watched their parents work themselves to the bone.

“My dad is the hardest-working man I know,” Amy Rowbottom said. “With milk, it is just out of your control. You couldn’t work hard enough no matter how smart you were.” Robert Rowbottom, a first-generation dairy farmer, eventually had to take a job off the farm, as a master logger. “Luckily, he found work he loved,” she said. Still, “It was so hard for him because this was his life’s work,” she added. “It was part of his identity.” He got rid of his dairy herd, keeping just 12 beef cattle.

Amy’s plan was always to have a diversified farm herself, but she was making a living doing web design and marketing when a friend asked her if she’d ever thought about making cheese. Intrigued, she took a course with Caitlin Hunter of Appleton Creamery and then spent a year showing up at Hunter’s house on the weekends with “a couple of buckets of milk.”

“We made cheese all day and I had so much fun,” she added. Hunter helped her figure out how she could set herself apart from other cheesemakers, testing out batches, some of them “inedible” on friends and family. The learning curve may have been steep, but paid off when her ricotta, sold under the label Crooked Face, won third place from the American Cheese Society in 2013. Going forward, she expects her niche to be smoked cheese, and after a break from the business (her previous partnership dissolved) she hopes to be up and running with the business – possibly under a different label – and a slick custom smoker late this spring.

Alison Leary had always heard her father say he didn’t want to milk cows when he was 60, but as the only one of his eight children who had an interest in the continuing in dairy, she said “of course I was a little heartbroken” when he announced he was going to let most of his herd go and focus on vegetable production instead. But she and her fiancé Patry will use milk from a couple of cows from the Leary farm in Saco in addition to some newly acquired Normande cattle, expected to be on their way soon from Ohio. Since Leary has a degree in dairy farm management technology from Vermont Technical College she can do minor vet work on her own herd, another way to keep money in the bank. They’ll make ice cream, yogurt, kefir and both hard and soft cheeses, including mozzarella and Parmesan, and some of the hard cheeses they were introduced to in Austria, where Patry spent a couple of years learning how to make cheese and Leary a summer.

In Edmunds, Rachel Bell’s father, uncle and grandfather ran a relatively successful dairy out of Tide Mill, with a herd of 100. The year her cousin Aaron Bell was born, the Bell family replaced their dairy cows with beef cattle. About nine years ago, Aaron decided to restore the dairy component of the Tide Mill operation. It’s been a roller coaster: He shipped commercially to Hood, until the company dropped Tide Mill and other far flung dairies because they were so far away from the processor. The Bells sold through Moo Milk, until that went under in 2014. Now he’s selling to Horizon, and to a highly reliable customer – his daughter Rachel. She uses it to make whole milk and Greek yogurt, fresh cow cheese flavored with herbs and sea salts and a Camembert. She makes chevre from her goat milk.

Karen Trenholm of Wholesome Holmstead all but gave up on dairy and then found her way back to it.

Her parents, Margaret and Michael, purchased the farm in 1947 and raised their five children on MarMik Farm (combining their first names). Both parents worked outside the farm, both as nurses, but kept the dairy going. When Karen and her husband took over, they followed the trends in dairy, switching from Guernseys to Holsteins, which are known for the volume of milk production, and they sold their milk to Hood in the ’80s. But when the trend became get big or get out, they essentially got out.

“I knew we couldn’t survive,” she said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”

They switched to beef cattle, keeping just a few Guernseys for the breeding stock. For 30 years, Karen made a living with the U.S. Postal Service, delivering mail in Monmouth.

But as the local food movement took hold, Karen started taking classes in cheesemaking from the Maine Cheese Guild and the Vermont Institute of Artisanal Cheeses. When she was a kid, her father used to make farmer’s cheese, but she’d wrinkled her nose at it. Now she was thinking about ways to get back in the dairy business, with a new twist.

Then in May of 2010, Anne returned home. She’d gone to college in Colorado, put in a stint working for the American Agriculture Association in Missouri and had picked up some sales and marketing experience working for a garage door business.

MOTHER-DAUGHTER CHORES

“I always thought I’d move back,” Anne Trenholm said. “But I didn’t think I’d move back at, like, 25.” Her mother immediately set her to work, directing her to take a run to the farmers market to sell beef and pork while Karen dealt with an animal crisis. Her mother’s new hobby intrigued her. Not so much the cheesemaking itself, but the contribution she could make to it, working on sales and helping with the growing herd of Guernseys (they’re milking six this year; when Karen started, they had just one). She’d had a tremendous love of cows as a child and was an active 4-H member.

“She was a competitor,” Karen said of her daughter. “People knew they had to get past her.”

“And they knew they had to get past the person who trained her,” Anne said.

Mother and daughter, trainer and trainee, have found new ground as partners. With Anne’s help, Karen grew more ambitious – and productive – as a cheesemaker. They started with spreadable yogurt cheeses and things like queso blanco. Now they’re making a dozen cheeses, including the harder, aged cheeses, which have the benefit of a longer shelf life.

“We had so much cheese last year,” Karen Trenholm said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m making all this cheese, where am I going to get rid of it?”

Those days are behind them now. Something kicked in. Word spread about their products (deservedly so), a new farmers market opened down the road at Longfellow’s Greenhouse. Together, they’re intent on kick-starting the local food movement in Augusta, noting that Portland doesn’t need their help. “It’s not about the cash – we need the cash – but we want people to have the choice to buy food that was made within 20 miles of where they live,” Karen said.

Now when Karen Trenholm looks to the future, she has a new vision for her family farm.

“Another 30 years we will have been here a century,” Karen said. “That’s my dream, that Anne will be running it.”