To celebrate Women’s History Month, culture and Murray’s Cheese collaborated on an exciting project to spotlight the amazing women in cheese. This included creating a collection of cheeses and accompaniments—all from women makers or importers—and a Q+A with Culture Media Founder Stephanie Skinner and Editor Susan Axelrod. We also reached out to the women makers to ask them: “What has been your biggest challenge in your business and what has been your biggest joy?” Their answers are woven into the conversation below.
Susan Axelrod (SA): Let’s start with you as an amazing woman in cheese, Stephanie; why did you decide to launch culture: the word on cheese?
Stephanie Skinner (SS): I am first and foremost a publishing person. My younger sister, Lassa, was a cheesemonger in California, and she was friends with Kate Arding—of Neal’s Yard UK fame, and now of Talbott and Arding in upstate New York. I was out there with the two of them as they were working on opening a cheese shop in Napa and talking about what cheeses they would have there, etc. I said to them, ‘Why don’t you just read the magazine about cheese and that will tell you?’ And they said, ‘There isn’t one.’ And because I’m also an entrepreneur, I said, ‘Well, when I come back in two weeks, I’m going to have a business plan, and we’re going to launch a magazine about cheese.’ This was in 2007, right at the beginning stages of this boom in the American artisan cheese industry.
When we first got started, we traveled the country visiting distributors and retailers, introducing ourselves and our intent to build a world-class cheese company. The doubters were plenty (and plenty loud) because we didn’t have specific experience in cheese, food science, or even as dairy farmers (that was our parents), and we definitely couldn’t build a credible brand with just one cheese, let alone a blue. That was 23 years ago, and thanks to the mentorship and faith of many women in the industry (here’s to you Peggy Smith, Sue Conley, Mary Keehn, Allison Hooper and Cathy Strange, among others) we defied the naysayers. Looking back, we can’t help but ponder, would a trio of brothers from a multi-generational, agricultural background, with rock-solid business experience, be questioned like we were back in 2000? No, they would be heralded for their ambition and risk averse entrepreneurship.
As co-CEOs, our goal is to create a work environment that supports women with strong leadership, work life balance, and opportunities for growth. We’re mothers ourselves and understand firsthand the challenges of growing a career while raising children. Having a woman’s perspective on the struggle to enhance personal and professional development at the same time is our superpower—and it starts with being empathetic to our employees’ wants and needs—while balancing the needs of the company of course… As much as delivering happiness to our customers through cheese is fulfilling, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing our female team members build confidence and independence through advancement in the company. Women helping women, as modeled expertly by our own mother, is what it’s all about.
LYNN GIACOMINI STRAY AND JILL GIACOMINI BASCH, CO-OWNERS POINT REYES FARMSTEAD CHEESE CO., POINT REYES, CA
SS: Susan, how did you come into this cheese writing world?
SA: I’ve been a food writer and editor for a long time, and I’ve always had a fascination with cheese (some who know me might call it an obsession). I grew up in a household like a lot of us, where we had Velveeta and maybe some Cracker Barrel cheddar for something fancy when company came over. I’ve often told this silly story that when I was 12, I road my bicycle to what was then called a gourmet shop near our house in Washington D.C., and I bought brie with my babysitting money. I got home and my mother was sort of horrified that I had spent my money on cheese. She said, ‘We have cheese,’ and I said, “Mom, Velveeta is not cheese.’ I think that’s how it all started, and it’s why I was especially excited to land this job with culture nearly three years ago.
The answer is the same for both questions: Finding the right people and building a team. To produce high-quality products, you need people to care at every step. You can teach people SOPs and how to operate equipment, but you cannot teach people to care. You have to be able to identify that trait when you interview them. And to be frank, not that many people out there care. But there is another layer to that and it’s getting all those people who care to work together. I’m a soccer fanatic and I look at myself as the coach of a team. I’m recruiting for all these qualified, talented individuals and my job is to make all of us work as a team, towards a unified goal—making the best cheese out there. The biggest joy is teaching people new skills, seeing them excel at their jobs, enjoy coming to work and taking pride in what they do.
VERONICA PEDRAZA, HEAD CHEESEMAKER, BLAKESVILLE CREAMERY, PORT WASHINGTON, WI
SA: Who are some of the women in cheese that have inspired you?
SS: There are so many, if I tried to name all the women who have inspired me in the industry, I’ll run the risk of leaving some out! Before we launched the magazine, I went to meet some of these people because I didn’t know them. I met Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Cowgirl Creamery, and they were welcoming and lovely, and I met Debra Dickerson, who had her own distribution company at the time. They said, ‘Whatever we can do to help, we’re in.’
Also among the first people I met were the women that some call the “goat ladies:” Allison Hooper from Vermont Creamery who started the business in the ‘80s because of her love of French goat cheeses; Mary Keehn in California, who started Cypress Grove basically because her kids had goats and the goats started producing milk; Jennifer Bice at Redwood Hill got started in the same way—her kids were in 4H and had goats; Judy Schad at Capriole who makes extraordinary cheese in Indiana; And of course Laura Chenel was one of the originals. They were all just great friends; they go on vacation together—they might be competitors but they’re all great friends. And they welcomed me and my partners into it.
I have always wanted to make a difference in the world. At first, I thought that I wasn’t going to have the chance; I mean I thought, we were selling cheese, how can I make a difference in the world? Over time, working hand-in-hand with our producers and successfully working with customers all over the U.S. to sell amazing high-quality cheese, helped us help our producers to grow and thrive. Our greatest joy has been to see both of these things—how our producer partners have flourished over the years and how we at Forever Cheese have been able to sell unparalleled products across most corners of our country.
The biggest challenge has been how to explain to the populace—chefs and consumers included—that MOLD is your friend and that you don’t need to trash the product when you see it.
MICHELE BUSTER, FOREVER CHEESE, NEW YORK, NY
SS: How do you get ideas for stories?
SA: Well, we’re very lucky, because thanks to the reputation you built, culture has such a great position in the industry and with cheese folks, that we get a lot of tips and ideas via email, social media, etc. Good writers want to write for us; they reach out and pitch us stories. So that’s one way that I do it, and the other way is that I travel as much as I can and connect with lots of different people. I pick up ideas wherever I go, whether it’s to the American Cheese Society Conference, the Fancy Food Shows, or to visit cheesemakers in Spain, Italy, the UK, Vermont, California, and Wisconsin. I’ve been a judge at the last two World Cheese Awards and at two Cheese Monger Invitationals—in New York and San Francisco. And I’ve been so warmly welcomed. Mary Quicke not only gave me a personal tour of Quicke’s Cheese but invited me to stay at her house when I went to the UK last fall. It was extraordinary!
SA: What was the biggest surprise for you in learning about the cheese world.
SS: You just mentioned it. I’ve done magazines in IT, and biotech, and those are so male dominated and so competitive, but I have never seen such a collegial group of people than in the cheese industry. And I think that’s probably because 60 percent of the industry is women. When you’re in the publishing world and you’re talking with people, you expect them to keep you at arm’s length, but this is a hugging industry as you know. Within minutes of meeting people, we’re hugging and talking about where we’re going to dinner.
The biggest challenge has been balancing the wonderful world of farming on our beautiful biodiverse farm and making world-class cheese with the business side—making sure I keep focus on the numbers when I’d much rather think about everything else. Fortunately, I’ve great people to think about that and even more fortunate that my daughter has come back to the business and she’s really good at balancing those things.
The biggest joy is that it’s been an extraordinary privilege and pleasure to immerse myself in the amazing complexity that producing something that goes from dirt to plate. Soil (dirt) is a whole unknowable universe of complexity, and with the ability if we work it right to sequester lots of that pesky Co2 that’s warming the planet.
MARY QUICKE, OWNER, QUICKE’S CHEESE, NEWTON ST CYRES, UK
SS: For two years, because of the pandemic, we hadn’t been able to go to the annual conference of the American Cheese Society. (People who aren’t in the cheese industry think it’s hilarious that there’s a cheese society, and the conference is absolutely the best thing in the world. We call it cheese camp.) Last year was the first time you got to the annual conference. What was that like for you?
SA: Well, talk about hugging! It was a giant group hug because people were so over the moon to see each other. I got to meet people that I had only heard about or emailed with, and that was very exciting. Like Sophie Gentine and her dad, Chris, from Deer Creek Cheese in Wisconsin. And Nick Tranchina from Murray’s! We had just written about Sarah and Boo Simms from Lady and Larder in Los Angeles, and they greeted me like I was their long-lost cousin or something. Just to be in those spaces with the makers and other people connected to the industry; I had a hard time deciding which of the seminars to attend because they were all so interesting! And then the Meet the Cheesemaker tasting with 100 producers and their products—it was overwhelming, in a good way.
Navigating the last 12 months has been the most challenging of our nearly 10 years in business. V Smiley Preserves took a huge leap in 2022, opening a public-facing brick and mortar production space called Minifactory as the cost of our supplies exploded under historic inflation. Life at V Smiley Preserves changed overnight. At the intersection of immense financial pressures and managing an expanded team, I often find myself floundering, scared, determined and worst of all for our team, moody—in other words, scrambling to be the frank, but hopeful leader that I want to be.
Regarding joy, it’s really hard to choose a top one. I’ve gained so much confidence and tenderness through V Smiley Preserves. I am marked by coming from a home where I consistently heard that I wasn’t doing a good enough job, wasn’t responsible and didn’t have “what it takes” to do something on my own. I was shouldering a parent’s troubled relationship with their own ambitions. Running V Smiley Preserves has slowly made me whole. The work is very personal and heartfelt for me. The medium is fruit and produce generally. I have sat at a table and eaten flavor combinations so seamless and satisfying that it melted my heart, relaxed my body, and made my imagination soar. It made me listen better. It made me wonder more. This is the joy of good, simple food shared with people. That’s what V Smiley Preserves wants to share with you.
V SMILEY, OWNER AND FOUNDER, V SMILEY PRESERVES, NEW HAVEN MILLS, VT
SA: Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked about?
SS: We would be remiss if we also didn’t mention the fact that is this is a product that starts with the animals, goes though the cheesemakers, then through distribution, either through import/export or distribution here in the U.S. But there’s also another group of people that are extraordinarily important—the mongers. Unlike many other products, they can actually allow you taste cheese before you buy it. Which means they have to have so much more knowledge than the average person selling something. I mean, you can’t go up and say, ‘I’d like to taste that steak before I buy it, please.’ That’s another part of the cheese world that I absolutely love. At a place like the ACS Conference, you have the guy who owns a huge distribution company sitting down with a monger and they’re talking about the industry and they both care so much about it.
Our biggest challenge occurred during the early pandemic when we learned how fragile the supply chain was. Packaging was our biggest challenge as paper and pulp were in high demand and lead times on orders were taking three-to-four times longer than normal. We managed to eke by with some delays in production and overall came out fine. The larger, more important picture was that we were thankful our team was able to work safely, and we could continue fulfilling orders. And, of course, everyone—from retailers to consumers to our distributor partners—were all very understanding.
Our biggest joy was winning a Gold sofi Award for Effie’s Homemade Original Oatcakes in 2010. We were thrilled that our retail partners and industry colleagues recognized the specialness of the recipe and what it brought to the specialty food world. After the award ceremony we called and told Joan’s mother, Effie, that we had won a big award for the Oatcakes, and that she was officially famous. She couldn’t quite grasp the concept of the award but said, “Oh that’s nice, dear. But whatever you do don’t give out my number.”
JOAN MACISAAC, FOUNDER AND CO-OWNER, EFFIE’S HOMEMADE, HYDE PARK, MA
SS: And now I’ll ask you the same question.
SA: Cheese has traditionally been a very white industry—we are very aware of that at culture and we try to keep our eye on including diverse voices and perspectives whenever we can. We are grateful to our regular columnist Agela Abdullah—another amazing woman in cheese—who helps keep those issues top of mind for us. In our upcoming issue she writes about the lack of BIPOC representation in cheese education, and she really challenges the industry to promote people of color. I also sometimes get reminded by writers; regular contributor Linni Kral is great about saying ‘I think we need more diversity in that list of people we’re covering,’ and I’m grateful for that. I think we all have a responsibility to keep working on that issue.
The biggest challenge when we started out was: ‘How the heck do I make Gouda?’ Soon the lack of funds kicked in and the different hats you carry when you are a small creamery. I had to make sure that sales could keep up with production and vice-versa.
My biggest joys are my kids; the team; the customers; the camaraderie in the cheese industry; bringing happiness to people’s tables, to be part of their moments of enjoyment, with friends, family, neighbors, strangers or just by themselves; the future; winning.
MARIEKE PENTERMAN, MARIEKE GOUDA, THORP, WI
Listen to Susan and Stephanie’s full conversation below.