How Small Creameries Hang in the Balance of Quarantine and Coronavirus

(with Links to Support Local Producers)

It was a drizzly Friday afternoon in mid-March when Lynn Swanson received the call that Seattle’s farmers markets were closing. Lynn was distraught about the news for good reason: she makes sheep’s milk cheeses on the farmstead creamery that she and her husband own on about 80 acres of waterfront property on Whidbey Island.

She had just made a large batch of yogurt from the fresh, spring milk that her ewes were producing. She had also just opened the most beautiful batch she’d ever made of Blue Ewe, a sheep’s milk blue she wraps in Japanese Hard Nut leaves that have been soaked in Bourbon. While the farm has a small store that is open for a few hours on weekends, the vast majority of Glendale Shepherd’s cheeses are sold at the farmers markets in Seattle.

It was in the midst of this devastating news that my partner in curd, Tailor Kowis, and I chose to visit Glendale Shepherd. We had originally planned to head six hours south, to the Oregon Cheese Festival, but the festival had been cancelled due to fears over the Novel Coronavirus. Since shelter-in-place orders were not yet a part of our daily life, Tailor and I decided to plan a shorter trip closer to home, to explore and support some local creameries.

After poring over the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival cheese map in search of a cluster of creameries not too far afield of home, we looked to Whidbey Island, just two hours and a short ferry ride north of Seattle.

Langley waterfront on Whidbey Island

Glendale Shepherd lies at the southern tip of Whidbey Island, and North Whidbey Farm sits nearly at the opposite tip. It made sense to us to visit these two creameries—one sheep, one goat—since we could easily hit one each day and make a loop up through island and back down to Seattle. So we booked a cute Airbnb on a wooded property that was a few houses down from an alpaca farm, loaded up the car with snacks, and headed out into the rains.

I had discussed our coming with Lynn, who told us to call when we got to the island. When I called her from our Airbnb, she admitted she was undergoing stress.

“I just got the call that the markets are closed,” she said. “Yesterday I made this big batch of yogurt, and I don’t know how I’m going to sell it.”

We offered to postpone our visit if it was too stressful, but she told us to come anyway. So we followed Waze’s directions, which eventually took us off the paved highways, down a long, gravel road and through a forest of tall trees that arced toward one another above us. It was like driving through an enchanted forest.

When we arrived at Glendale Shepherd, it was muddy and drizzling, and the skies were gray. The property was tightly wooded with tall, white-trunked trees and evergreens whose branches seemed brilliantly verdant in the gloomy daylight. We saw blue water peeking at the base of the sheer, wooded hillsides that were dotted with out-buildings we would discover were full of sheep.

Lynn came out to meet us. Naturally she took us straight to the nursery where several batches of lambs frolicked and waited for snacks.

As we made goo-goo eyes at the babies, we discussed the minefield of consequences the farmers markets’ closing entailed for the small creamery.

Lynn does make a few aged sheep’s milk cheeses, but those batches were not yet ready for sale. Instead she had plenty of fresh cheeses, yogurt, and Labneh: all perishable items with a short shelf life, which would not wait for the Novel Coronavirus to run its course before needing to be consumed.

The farm store at Glendale Shepherd

The farm needed to sell cheese so that it could continue to run: to buy feed for the animals, to keep the water and electricity flowing, to pay all the bills so that Lynn and her family could survive.

The farmstead belonged to Lynn’s husband’s family. Before they raised sheep, it had been a summer camp for many years. Now it was dotted with small barns for the lambs, for the pregnant ewes, for those who had given birth, for those who were dried off (since Glendale Shepherd practices staggered, year-round breeding to spread out their workload over the course of the year), and for the rams. The family home sat on a hill overlooking Puget Sound, and the creamery and farm store perched on another hill.

Lynn told us that already her son had been going to the farmers markets alone, since she was considered too old to go, thanks to the risk of COVID-19, and that her husband could not risk it at all because an accident with a falling tree had left him partially paralyzed from the lungs down. It was clear that the family felt trapped between the need to keep everyone safe and the need to keep their farm running.

The thing about running a dairy farm is that you can’t just turn it off. The animals don’t understand virus and contagion; they continue to do what they always have—and it is the farmer’s duty to keep things going so that the animals don’t notice a change and become stressed.

Plus, even if you own your land, which surprisingly many farmers do not, you still have bills to pay. The animals certainly cost their own amount, but there are also rent or mortgage bills, electricity and gas, waste removal, employee salaries, health insurance, and daily necessities like food and water—not to mention additional costs if the family has young children or a great extended family to care for.

One could argue that you could just leave the animals to drink their mothers’ milk and not make cheese. But modern dairy animals have been bred to produce far more milk than their babies need to drink, so even if the babies glutted themselves on an all-you-can-drink buffet, the mothers would still have more milk that needed to be expressed. I have never given birth or lactated, but I hear from people who have that it is incredibly uncomfortable to have breasts full of milk and nowhere for it to go.

So you could make aged cheeses with your milk, but that means two things: 1) that you will not make any money from your cheese until it has aged out; it’s sort of like betting on the future. And 2) you have to hope that the batches you age all succeed and do not surprise you by turning into inedible garbage.

This may be less of a risk for cheesemakers who routinely age out their cheeses, but for those who specialize in fresh cheeses, aging may bring about eventual disaster at the cost of not being able to pay today’s bills and those in four or six months. On top of that game of cheese roulette, aging cheese requires special, controlled environments, and not all cheesemakers have immediate access to that kind of space.

The cheesemaker’s hands are tied: she must milk her animals, she has more milk than the babies or her family need, and she needs income to keep the farm running and to avoid having to sell off any of the animals to pay bills.

The reason the farmers markets’ closing was so much more painful for Lynn and the other small cheesemakers who sell to the Seattle area, is because the restaurants were already suffering. The farmers markets are a huge income stream for these little cheesemakers, but so, too, are the local restaurants who buy cheeses for their menus. As of the beginning of March, restaurant sales were down 75 percent in most cases throughout the greater Seattle area.

Before we went away on our weekend trip to Whidbey Island, I had had a phone call at the shop with Rachael Tuller of Lost Peacock Creamery in Olympia. Rachael was calling to get our weekly cheese order. She let me know that they had tons of cheese and almost nobody to buy it, because their restaurant customers were not buying.

Since the restaurants’ sales were down, they were buying fewer ingredients, which meant that the cheesemakers and other farmers who sold to them were also experiencing a plummet in sales. Without restaurants and farmers markets—and for creameries like Rachael’s which also rely in part on agro-tourism, which had ground to a stunning halt—the grocery stores are the cheesemaker’s biggest hope.

But even for us, at that point in the pandemic, the progression of sales were unclear. People had not started panic-buying food yet. (They started that while Tailor and I were blissfully unaware and out of town on Whidbey Island.) Fresh cheese sales don’t typically pick up for us until warmer weather and sunshine hit—say, in mid-April—and it was still drizzly, gray winter weather in western Washington.

Nonetheless, I placed a tentatively large order with Lost Peacock for their whipped chevre, Thai garlic chevre, and Halloumi—hoping that we would sell it. It was a risk to bring in so much perishable cheese without being able to sample it in the store anymore, but we wanted to support them as best we could.

Like Lynn, Rachael had the springtime problem farmstead cheesemakers face whether they practice traditional or year-round breeding practices: all of the pregnant animals either had given birth or were about to; there is more milk flowing than at any other time of the year, and the milk which is not consumed by the babies has to be made into something—which must in turn become income.

Cheese is considered a “Value-Added Product.”[i] In essence, it is meant to be a way for dairy farmers to actually earn a living, despite the grave disparity between how much it costs to produce a gallon of milk versus how much that gallon of milk brings in revenue.

(Hint: it often costs more to produce the milk than the famer gets paid for it. This is particularly bad for cow dairies, but it affects all small milk producers. And that’s how we get huge, industrial dairy farms that harm the earth: so that the dairy farmer can pump out as much milk as possible to actually make a profit on his enterprise.)

Snacks we had brought to the island mingle with snacks we bought on the island

The story of milk prices would come into relief after we left Lynn and Glendale Shepherd with bags of their beautiful cheeses: luscious whole-milk yogurt, Labneh, Feta, bloomy-rind White Cap, washed-rind Tallulah, plain and dill-and-garlic Brebis Frais,[ii] and the gorgeous and buttery Blue Ewe.

After a night of gorging ourselves on fresh shellfish, wine, and a banquet table’s worth of cheeses, we headed north the next morning, snaking our way up the winding, tree-lined highway to the island’s northern tip. There we met with Kimberly Christensen at her family’s farmstead goat dairy, North Widbey Farm.

We stopped to stretch our legs at Ebey’s Landing, just over halfway up Whidbey’s western coast

Kimberly and her husband, Brian, live on the farmstead with their young children, a small herd of goats, and assorted pigs and chickens. The farm, which stretches across 100 acres overlooking an inlet of Puget Sound, allows them to grow their own feed for the animals and give them plenty of space to roam.

Kimberly and Brian showed us their small herd of goats, with tiny babies bleating and a mother licking her newborn twins clean. Brian makes the cheese, and Kimberly makes goat’s milk soap. When we visited, they were not yet making cheese, but Kimberly had just returned from selling soap and other items at the Anacortes Farmers Market that afternoon.

Cheesemaking is a new endeavor for them, which they had begun the year before. Kimberly said originally they had begun raising goats so they could sell raw goat’s milk. They grew their herd enough to support bottling the milk, but soon found that the cost of testing, sanitation, bottling, and all of the other hoops they had to jump through to sell fluid milk was so prohibitive that there was hardly anything left for their family to live on.

After learning that difficult lesson, the Christensens sold off much of their herd and began selectively breeding[iii] with the idea of making cheese, which would earn more money than fluid milk even if it would take more work. Brian was still experimenting, selling mostly plain and flavored chèvres at market but toying around at home with bloomy rind and aged goat’s milk cheeses to see what turned out. 

Some of Brian’s experimental cheeses in the aging room

Still too tiny to sell their fresh cheeses beyond the farmers markets, Kimberly and Brian were watching the Novel Coronavirus situation with caution. The goats had almost all given birth and were producing milk, which meant it was nearly time to go into production and sales mode. While their farmers markets were still open, it was unclear if they might follow the lead of those in Seattle and close, too.

Tailor plotting how she was going to steal this baby goat

In the weeks that followed, Governor Jay Inslee issued a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order that shut down many of the state’s businesses and encouraged people to stay home.

Cheesemakers scrambled to figure out how to sell their cheeses in a landscape that had changed essentially overnight. While some creameries already offered direct shipping options and online sales, the vast majority did not. While it seems like shipping cheeses would be a no-brainer, in truth it is very expensive to ship cheese and perishable items that need to be kept cold—and keep them cold from origin to destination. These items must be kept below 42 degrees the entire time, which entails lots of special packaging materials, dry ice, and added weight.

That weight costs money, and most consumers are used to free shipping or cheap, flat-rate shipping. It is hard to entice someone to purchase a product that is already expensive and then add the high cost of shipping on top of that.

Glendale Shepherd began taking orders from customers and delivering to a few spots in Seattle—to the locations where farmers markets take place, and for a time to the doorsteps of customers who ordered in advance. Lori Babcock of Tieton Farm & Creamery did the same, driving cheeses to Yakima to sell out of the car as long as people would place orders and come pick them up.

The new landscape of selling cheeses led to a flurry of communication. Meghan McKenna of the Washington Cheesemakers Association put together a list of the state’s cheesemakers and how to buy their cheeses; the Association put out a call to local retailers, asking them to step up to help sell the cheeses that could get picked up by grocery stores. Haggen and Whole Foods both answered the call.

Indeed, similar things happened in other states—from cheese guilds, from food writers for a variety of media,[iv] and from bloggers. Everyone in the cheese industry recognized the overarching problem: cheesemakers needed to be able to sell their cheeses. Their margins are already so thin, the work so labor-intensive, and farming so expensive, that a prolonged lack of business-as-usual would put many of them out of business.

While so many of us are always beating the “buy local” drum, the call became a battle cry amid the crisis. If we wanted these creameries to be around after the pandemic, people needed to buy their cheeses now. As author and Rainbow Grocery cheese buyer Gordon Edgar put it best:

“There is a crisis happening for artisan cheesemakers right now and it is dire. It is possible that in twenty years, those of us still around will be talking about the era of amazing artisan cheeses that spanned (roughly) 1999-2019 and was an era you had to be a part of to believe. And people won’t believe us.”[v]

Now, in early May, our governor has introduced a multi-step plan to reopen the state, and farmers markets in Seattle have cautiously begun to re-open with strict social-distancing guidelines. As we approach the second phase of reopening, there is a small glimmer of hope—but it is certainly no fix-all for our local producers.  

Whenever you have the choice of buying cheese, wherever you have it, I urge you to choose a local cheese. If you can only afford one, please let it be the local option.

And if you’d like to find your favorite local cheesemakers, or some new ones to support, here are some links you can use to get started.[vi]

For Washington State

For Elsewhere

Finally, I urge you to listen to blogger and veteran cheesemonger Janee’ Muha’s “Maker Series” of online interviews she did with cheesemakers around the country about the many ways they have had to pivot their businesses to adapt to the pandemic. The interviews are eye-opening and inspiring.

[i] According to Heather Paxson, the term “Value-Added Product” is, “…the misleadingly straightforward notion that market value is added to a commodity (milk) through the labor of processing (cheesemaking).” She goes on to clarify that this is a misleading, because: “Labor, however, does not magically ‘add value’ to a niche product. Taking up ‘value-added’ agriculture means acquiring not only new processing skills of cheesemaking but also what Cristina Grasseni calls the ‘packaging skills’ of marketing. […] cheesemakers work to translate the qualitative values that make its production good to undertake into the perceived quality of the cheese thereby produced, in such a way that it might generate through market exchange the quantitative value of added income” (emphasis mine). See: Paxson, Heather. The Life of Cheese. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2013. 88. Print.

[ii] “Brebis Frais” is French for “fresh sheep.” Think of it as you would a fresh Chèvre or a Fromage Frais, but made with sheep’s milk instead of goat’s or cow’s.

[iii] Selective breeding is a strategy of breeding ones livestock by which you breed animals with one another based on qualities you want their offspring to possess. For example, a farmer might breed high-producing animals and remove less productive animals from the herd, or she might breed for less but richer milk, for larger or smaller animals, for animals that thrive in colder or hotter climates, or which are better for meat or for dairy production. See, for example: Johnson, Thomas J.J., et. al. “Mating Strategies to Maximize Genetic Merit in Dairy Cattle Herds.” Journal of Dairy Science 101.5 (2018): 4650-4659. Web. 22 April 2020.

[iv] A few articles for further reading are as follows: John Dillon, “Farming’s COVID Crisis: Specialty Cheese Sales, Milk Prices Plummet,” Vermont Public Radio; Margaret Leahy, “Nowhere to Go,” Culture Cheese Magazine; Rachael Lukaas, “Now or the Janky Alternative,” Taste Washington Travel; and a podcast featuring Cara Warren interviewing Janee’ Muha, “Episode 418 The Mobile Monger, Janee’ Muha,” Cutting the Curd.

[v] Edgar, Gordon. “Diary of an ‘Essential Worker’ (Entry #6) Cheese Talk.” N.p., 2 April 2020. Web. 22 April 2020. 

[vi] Did I miss something? If you have a link I should add to this list, please let me know!

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