Paramedic’s Md. Cheese Guild out to tout industry

Staff Writer

ROCKVILLE, Md. (April 25, 2017) — From humble beginnings, the Maryland Cheese Guild continues to promote locally made cheese products and partner with other groups carrying the same local mission. 
A self-proclaimed “cheese enthusiast”, guild founder Alicia Clugh of Rockville, Md., had learned to make cheese at home when she decided to start the group, mainly for cheese enthusiasts to support each other and exchange ideas. Clugh works full-time as a certified paramedic.
“The name Cheese Guild says it all,” she said. “It’s about Maryland Cheese, but I didn’t want to exclude other dairy products.
“A ‘guild’ fits perfectly what I want,” she added. “I wanted a group of cheesemakers, both professional and amateur, to be able to exchange ideas, share technique and challenge each other to grow and create. The Guilds of old, set standards, and their mark on something meant quality, and that’s what I want — and hope — The Maryland Cheese Guild will come to represent.”
The Maryland Cheese Makers Guild now has a formal structure with by-laws, a board of directors, officers, standing committees and about 30 paid members. Clugh said discussions are underway for cheese makers to participate in consumer outreach at Maryland breweries and for guild members to join the Grow and Fortify Organization for joint promotion.
Like Clugh, whose grandparents showed at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, Colleen and Michael Histon, guild members and owners of Shepherds Manor Creamery near New Windsor, Md., were not originally from the farm. The Histons purchased their first dairy sheep in 2008 and have a thriving sheep milk business. The couple said they decided to milk sheep because they thought they would be able to take off during the winter. Instead, they found that the off-months are used for marketing, fixing equipment and networking. They are currently milking 80 East Friesian and Lacuna sheep twice each day. They also welcome visitors to sample cheese and give farm tours.
The guild held its inaugural open house at the Histon’s farm last year, attracting more than 40 cheese aficionados. 
“It gives the opportunity to talk to local cheese makers and learn how we work better together to promote artisanal cheese making in Maryland,” Clugh said of the event.
Also speaking at the event, Maryland Wineries Association Executive Director, Kevin Atticks, talked of the importance of a guild, saying it creates community, encourages collaboration and fosters the product’s culture.
Clugh said she hoped events like the open house would encourage people to learn more about cheese and allow them to be able to shop at their local farmers’ market with confidence.
In 2007, the Maryland General Assembly approved a pilot program allowing a few Maryland farmers to make raw milk cheese that is properly aged for 60 days.
The program was set to expire in five years, but the time limit was lifted in 2009 because Clugh said farmers were having trouble getting banks to lend them money for cheese-making ventures with a fixed end-date set.
Despite arduous health department regulations and production concerns, Maryland now boasts 23 artisan and farmstead cheese producers. Clugh said much of the industry’s success can be attributed to the producers’ proximity to the markets in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and to the public’s desire for locally produced farm products. Passionate cheesemakers propelling the movement have also been key to the effort.
In the spring of 2015, a small group of producers and agriculture support specialists met to discuss the idea of forming a Maryland Cheese Makers Guild to provide a common voice on regulatory issues and educational marketing opportunities to help support the industry’s growth.
A volunteer at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, Clugh was involved with some demonstrations during fair week and she felt there should be a “Cheese Festival” as a part of the fair, she said. So a cheese contest and demonstrations were held during fair week.
“Then, two years ago I was approached by the Maryland Wine Festival,” Clugh said.
The New Windsor Town Council had been encouraging the Histons to start a cheese festival, but they felt they could not take on that responsibility. Instead, they met with Clugh, , Kevin Atticks and Carroll County Farm Museum director, Joanne Weant, to discuss incorporating a cheese pavilion into the wine festival attractions.
“It was a natural fit,” Weant said “Nothing goes together better than wine and cheese.”
Clugh said the planned activities of the guild, are focused on getting the word out about Maryland cheese.
“We want to spread the word about our local cheese,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that cheese is made right here in Maryland. We want to support the local creameries and get consumers excited about the cheese-making process.”