CHEESEMAKERS HOPE TO RECOUP AFTER LOCKDOWN
The loss of restaurant and farmer’s market sales has farm-based artisan producers reeling.
You are probably aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a variety of disruptions in the US food supply, but you may not have heard about how it is impacting American artisan cheesemakers. While the best cheeses in the US are typically made on farms in areas with low population densities, most of that cheese is sold locally, to restaurants and at local farmers markets, and directly from on-farm shops. With these sales outlets cut off, or severely hampered since mid-March, most artisan cheesemakers have seen a good portion of their business dry up. As a result, many have reduced staff, slowed production, put their milk into longer-aged cheeses, pivoted to new sales channels, and in some cases sold some of their animals and ceased production. To get an idea of how they are being affected, we checked in with the three Potash Featured Artisans we have introduced you to in the last year or so. All three say they have been struggling to keep their businesses afloat, but that in the last week there has been some light at the end of the tunnel.
“We had to lay off three people in April, but recently we have been able to bring all three back,” said Sarah Hoffmann, founder of Missouri’s Green Dirt Farm. Green Dirt maintains a flock of about 150 sheep, and makes excellent sheep milk and mixed milk cheeses that are as good as any in the country. The farm-based company was our most recent Featured Artisan, in January of this year, and we are offering Green Dirt’s fresh spreads and aged cheeses on a rotating basis. Hoffmann said that when restaurants and farmer’s markets began to shut down in March, she did what a lot of other artisan cheesemakers did and ramped up online sales.
Photo Credit: Culture Magazine
“We have had a great response to online sales and that's been keeping us afloat during all this,” she said. “I'm glad to see that there's been some uptick in orders from our distributors too in recent days.” The farm has a shop and café off of the farm in nearby Weston, Mo. As of last week, the shop was open again with outdoor seating and social distancing precautions in place. Grocery stores like Potash Markets have, of course, remained opened. Those that carry artisan cheese are working hard to bolster sales for producers like Green Dirt Farm.
Part of Green Dirt’s work since its founding 13 years ago has included breeding sheep for top milk quality. That high-quality milk is an essential foundation for excellent cheese. For that reason, selling the farm’s animals was not an option, Hoffmann says.
“We did ask our producers to leave the lambs on the ewes for longer than usual and we'll do the same on our farm to decrease our milk supply,” she added. Green Dirt is doing the same with its own flock. The farm produced 30,000 pounds of cheese last year, but has a longer-term goal of about twice that amount. That will require additional staffing in the near future, and steady, predictable sales to support it. Hoffmann is hopeful that the setbacks suffered in the past two and a half months can be overcome.
Meanwhile, Padgett Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery, near Chattanooga Tenn. says that she and her husband Nate have faced similar challenges with the loss wholesale business to specialty distributors who sell primarily to chefs. In response, they have altered their production regimen to focus on the longer-aged cheeses in its lineup. They did not need to furlough any of their cheesemaking staff, but did need to reduce hours, in some cases by 50%.
“We have backed way off on our plans to do a big launch with Walden, our first pasteurized cheese,” Arnold said. “At least we have plenty of options for making cheeses that take a few months to age.”
The Arnolds currently care for and milk a herd of 40 cows on a portion of a 300-acre historical farm. The heard is comprised of mixed breeds, crossing genetics of New Zealand and European breeds. Padgett Arnold says this is the first year the milk herd is made up predominantly of heifers born on the farm.
“The results are clear - our milk quality has never been better and the animals are in better condition, producing more milk per cow than we have seen in the past,” she said. “And cheese quality is top notch. We are seeing our breeding work from the past three years starting to pay off.”
Sequatchie’s cows also benefit from lush pasture in an area where grass is available much of the year. The creamery’s European-inspired cheeses have won numerous awards. At Potash State Street, we currently carry Cumberland, a medium-aged cheese inspired by Tomme de Savoie, and the incredibly complex American original, Shakerag Blue. The Reblochon-style Dancing Fern will be back at Potash when it is available. Arnold says some markets are beginning to open now in Tennessee, and she is hopeful that Sequatchie will not have to sell animals or dump milk, but that the next month will be critical.
Our first Potash Featured Artisan was Consider Bardwell Farm, in West Pawlet, Vt. Co-founder Angela Miller says the crippling effect of the pandemic is the second catastrophe Consider Bardwell has faced in less than a year. www.considerbardwellfarm.com
The now-16-year-old company entered 2019 in growth mode, working with larger distributors and outsourcing more milk for increased production. The expansion was a financial strain and then, in September, Miller and her husband Rust Glover received word that a batch of goat cheese from an outside milk supplier had tested positive for Listeria, a bacteria that can cause serious illness if it contaminates a food product. None of the cheeses made with the tainted milk were released, but some Dorset, one of Consider Bardwell’s seasonal cow’s milk cheeses, had been aged in the same cave with those potentially contaminated cheeses.
“On the advice of a University of Vermont microbiologist we were working with, we decided to recall all the Dorset made since April. It was a voluntary recall, and we were in constant communication on a daily basis with the FDA,” Miller says.
During the voluntary recall, Consider Bardwell ceased production and sales, and the whole facility was swab tested and found to be free of listeria. No one was made sick, and the recall was officially terminated, but the financial damage was enough for them to consider closing the business.
Consider Bardwell was sitting on a fairly large supply of Rupert, a 20-pound Alpine-style cheese that undergoes one to two years of aging. The farm was working on fund raising, with plans to restart production when COVID-19 paralyzed the industry. Consider Bardwell’s sales have historically been based heavily in New York City’s Greenmarkets and in restaurants throughout the Northeast. It also sold batches of its Goatlet cheese to Brooklyn-based affineur, Crown Finish Caves. Our State Street store is currently offering a Goatlet that was further aged by Crown Finish. It’s a cow-goat mixed-milk cheese with complex, tangy flavors and a smooth firm texture, and it has snagged gold medals in the past two American Cheese Society annual competitions.
Consider Bardwell plans to restart production with Pawlet, its flagship cheese. Miller and Glover also reduced staff, and had to sell their goats last year when they stopped production, but they hope to buy back some of their stock when timing and good fortune allow it.
“Right now we are back to being a Mom and Pop shop, doing nearly everything ourselves,” she said. “But when production resumes, our cheesemaker, who, by the way, made all the Pawlet for the past couple of years, will rejoin us.”
Immediate plans include vigorous sales of a collaboration cheese made with Vermont cheddar specialist Grafton Village Cheese Company. Miller said too that Consider Bardwell will put more emphasis on sales to retailers and farmers markets as it re-emerges.
May is American Cheese Month, and at Potash we will continue to spotlight outstanding cheeses made by American artisans into June and beyond. Stop in and our cheese specialists will help you select a great cheese. You will have a delightful cheese experience while helping to support American artisans.
David Phillips is Cheese Department Manager for Potash Markets, and an ACS Certified Cheese Professional.