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America’s Artisan Cheese Industry Is Struggling to Survive Without Restaurants

Direct-to-consumer sales simply can’t replace the sheer volume of specialty cheese purchased by chefs

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Anne Saxelby stands in front of Saxelby Cheesemongers, her New York City cheese shop.
Anne Saxelby, founder and co-owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers
Photo by Christine Han

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Last week, many Americans became aware of yet another terrible side effect of the COVID-19 crisis: Dairy farmers, facing decreased demand and an oversupply of their product, are finding it necessary to dump millions of gallons of perfectly good milk. As one Wisconsin dairy farmer told NBC News, “You can’t shut down cows. You can’t turn them off like a faucet.”

If the specter of wasted milk is the most potent symbol of the considerable hardship confronting the American dairy industry, it is also only one part of a less visible story: Just as the country’s dairy farmers are suffering, so are its specialty cheesemakers. While dairy farmers were dumping milk in the Midwest, Jasper Hill Farm, one of the country’s most successful and influential artisan cheesemakers, was busy selling off the herd of cows on its home farm in Vermont — the same herd that built the foundation for its award-winning lineup of cheese.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Vermont’s artisan cheesemakers have experienced a 50 to 70 percent drop in sales, according to a report released by the Vermont Cheese Council. These grim statistics aren’t limited to Vermont: They have been echoed by many other small-scale cheesemakers I have spoken to in the U.S. and beyond.

As the founder and co-owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers, a New York City-based retailer and wholesaler of American artisan cheese, my business is among many in the cheese world that have seen our sales upended dramatically. Our company derives over 50 percent of our income from wholesale sales and distribution, and more than 70 percent of that is made up of sales to restaurants. As the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter, that income went away literally overnight.

But while this economic injury is severe, its distribution across the food industry is uneven. Even as sales from companies predominantly geared toward food service and restaurants have been obliterated, large-scale grocery chains have lines around the block and cannot keep their shelves stocked. This imbalance has left many in the artisan cheese world scrambling to survive.

Most artisan cheesemakers are small-scale producers who rely on smaller distributors, relationships with restaurants and chefs, and farmers markets to sell their wares. They are happily divorced from the large-volume, commodity cheese market, whose prices are dictated by commodities market traders. The economic independence that comes with making and selling value-added products like cheese is one of the reasons that farmers began turning to artisan cheese in the first place. In most cases, the commodity market doesn’t pay farmers enough to cover the costs of production.

Selling cheese through smaller channels like restaurants and farmers markets can have multiple benefits for small cheesemakers. Smaller businesses are less hampered by bureaucracy, complicated new product setup protocols, deal-breaking insurance limit requirements, long order lead times, etc. They are also more nimble and flexible, and typically the person making the purchase is also the passionate force behind the kitchen or the cheese counter interacting directly with customers. But when those smaller channels dry up, it would be useful to be able to sell into larger grocery chains. This is something that is out of reach for most small farms: Those that are large enough and have the protocols in place to sell to these types of chains are few and far between. And even for those that do, such as Jasper Hill Farm, the math is not easy there, either.

As one of the largest of America’s artisan cheese producers, Jasper Hill does a little bit of everything. It sells cheese to small independent shops and distributors, along with grocery behemoths like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill’s co-founder, told me that even though his company has relationships with these large purveyors, it is very difficult to turn on a pipeline to their customers overnight. The amount of time it takes to set up a new item in a store’s inventory system can be upward of six months, and promotions are planned many months in advance. So if a farm is confronted with a pileup of inventory, these large retailers cannot offer quick and nimble solutions when it comes to finding a home for this surplus of cheese.

It is imperative to note that no matter how the artisan cheese world struggles to pivot and redirect the flow of its products, direct-to-consumer sales, wonderful as they may be, simply cannot replace the sheer volume of cheese that was being purchased by restaurants and chefs. Whereas the most die-hard home cook might purchase a pound of cheese at a time, a chef would order five to 10 pounds of cheese several times a week to use in a particular dish. This helps explain why chefs are the true champions of the American artisan cheese industry: Over the past three decades, they have been both inspired by it and the force behind its explosive growth. When you take the chefs, restaurants, and their patrons out of the equation, the sales void that our small-scale cheesemakers now must overcome becomes formidable.

When I spoke to Mateo Kehler last week, he was simultaneously frank and melancholy about his decision to sell Jasper Hill’s herd of cows. The farm simply had 50 cows’ worth of too much milk to process, and rather than diminish the paycheck of one of the partner farms that relies on their milk purchases, Kehler and his partners decided to take the hit so they could continue to buy milk from these other farmers. Some of Jasper Hill’s cows went to neighboring farms that will continue to supply milk for their cheeses, and some of the older and less productive cows were culled.

It is a truly terrible choice for any farmer to have to make, and one that was also reflective of Jasper Hill’s mission over the past 15 years to create a “Taste of Place” in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. That is not a job that the company can do alone. It requires a network of local dairy farms supplying it with milk, as well as a workforce to milk the animals; crop the land; make, age, and sell the cheese; and on and on. Without even one of these crucial pieces of the puzzle, everything could fall apart. So Kehler and his partners decided to hedge their bets on their workers and local farm partners to keep their mission alive.

Other cheesemakers, such as Maryland’s Firefly Farms and Vermont’s Blue Ledge and Lazy Lady Farms, are trying to divert more of their milk supply away from fresh, soft cheeses and toward firmer, aged cheeses. The latter are less perishable and keep for many months, whereas softer, higher-moisture cheeses have only a six-to-12-week lifespan. In fact, firm, low-moisture cheeses continue to improve with age, reaching their peak of flavor anywhere from three months to two years after they were made. That’s why, while many people are talking about a COVID-19 baby boom nine months from now, I am predicting a baby boom of COVID-19 cheeses made to capture the value of the milk being produced and turn it into delicious food for sunnier days.

This is a good strategy that allows cheesemakers to use all their available milk and not diminish the size of their farms’ herds or disrupt relationships with suppliers. Firefly Farms, for example, relies on a network of eight Amish farms to supply all of its goat’s milk. So far, it has been able to continue its milk purchases and lower costs by reducing wages for all its employees and cutting any nonessential expenses. But with over 80 percent of its sales wiped out over the past few weeks, it’s unclear how much longer Firefly will be able to continue in this vein. In Vermont, meanwhile, Blue Ledge and the one-woman Lazy Lady Farms are fighting a similar economic battle as they find ways to make more of their own goat herds’ milk into aged cheese.

While this approach is far more attractive than the alternative of dumping milk, or of making fresh soft cheese that might spoil before it gets to market, it raises its own questions and concerns. Will the farms have the necessary cash flow to keep their operations going until their cheeses are aged and ready to sell many months from now? Will they have enough storage space in their aging caves to house all of this inventory? And are these the cheeses the market wants?

Those questions bring me to my next point: consumers’ COVID-19 shopping habits. It seems there’s something about a pandemic that triggers the part of our brain that craves protein, and in the cheese department, that means that staples like Parmesan and cheddar have been flying off the shelves. But it has been harder to redirect a customer’s attention to the specialty cheese case where the local, handmade, slightly more esoteric cheeses reside. And that’s why our artisan cheesemakers need you, the consumer, more than ever, to seek out their cheeses for your next pasta dish, salad, sandwich, you name it. They may be slightly more expensive, and provide a slightly different riff on your recipe, but when you choose them, you’re choosing to contribute to a virtuous cycle of sustainable agriculture, vibrant rural economies, and, of course, the future of delicious cheese. Every time you purchase artisan cheese, you vote to keep this industry alive and thriving.

And finally, if you want to make a difference, get your cheese from a farmers market, a restaurant that’s doing delivery, or a small independent retailer — many of us, myself included, ship nationwide directly to your doorstep. Whole Foods (aka Amazon) does not need any more of your money. Small businesses and the farms they support do. And, as a bonus, there’s usually not a line around the block to get in.

Anne Saxelby is the founder and co-owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers, a New York City-based retailer and wholesaler of American artisan cheese. Her forthcoming book, The New Rules of Cheese, will be published this fall by Ten Speed Press.