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Friends in Dire Places


 

Springtime means many things: new shoots pushing through the soil, warmer and longer days brightening moods, and animals having new babies. In an unfortunate and unfair twist of fate, spring this year brought something few of us could have seen coming. Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the US dairy industry is taking one of the worst hits during this crisis. 

Cheese is a time sensitive product, and at the moment, artisan cheese can’t compete with household staples like toilet paper and fluid milk in the supermarkets. Not only that, but those baby-producing dairy animals? This time of year is most lucrative to cheesemakers due to the animals’ extra milk production—without consumers and distributors buying product, cheesemakers and dairy farmers have nowhere for the extra milk to go. And if product isn’t moving, employees and bills can’t get paid, so facilities and jobs become casualties too. 

Some small cheesemakers are pivoting, turning their fresh cheese facilities into aging caves; others are offering products at steep discounts just to keep stock moving. Beehive Cheese in Uintah, Utah is offering their base cheddar, Promontory, at 50 percent its retail price. “That’s just above cost for us,” says Katie Schall, Beehive’s Marketing Director. “We [did this] so that our fans could enjoy a versatile staple with a long shelf life [of 120 days].” Customers’ increased demand for Promontory has kept Beehive’s production staff motivated, and keeps them busy at a time when work at other facilities may have slowed or halted. “This excitement has been great for morale,” says Schall.   

Since many restaurants have closed and cheese retail shops have seen a sharp decline in foot traffic due to social distancing, financial help for makers won’t come strictly from wholesale. Simply put, cheesemakers, dairy farmers, and independent cheese shops are in deep trouble. 

“We need all cheese lovers to support our small, niche community of artisans and craftspeople,” says Jill Giacomini Basch, co-owner of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese. “Know that purchases of specialty cheese support family farms that provide the milk to the maker community.” Basch encourages cheese fans to shop their favorites online, direct from producers, or purchase cheese at their local independent retailer—many of whom, nationwide, are offering curbside pickup! 

Many dairy-and cheese-specific outfits are working around the clock to keep their communities informed of developments, at home and across the country. The Washington State Cheesemakers and Wisconsin Cheesemakers Associations have compiled dozens of resources for makers and mongers, including links to health and safety directives, paycheck protection programs, and retail directories to disseminate to consumers who want to support their local makers. And independent makers who can swing it are donating unsold product to those in greatest need: Utah’s Beehive Cheese is donating thousands of pounds of cheese to its local food pantry, and donated 3 percent of its March web sales to local independent restaurants.

Food and beverage relief funds have sprung up to combat the economic hardship faced by tens of thousands of industry folks whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Some aim to help small business owners recoup their losses with grants, including Hello Alice, Facebook Business, and LISC, which, together with Verizon, is prioritizing businesses owned by women, people of color, and those operating in historically under-served communities. Many agricultural organizations, such as American Farmland Trust and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, are working to support the nation’s farmers, especially the smaller and one-person operations. Justice for Migrant Women are specifically raising funds for California-based migrant farm workers. 

Millions of food- and beverage-industry employees suddenly found themselves jobless in March following statewide shutdowns of restaurants and bars. People like these are the lifeblood of the cheese retail industry, for one, and need major financial support to stay solvent. The James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United are just three of the many funds established to help the folks behind the counters stay on their feet. Since a good number of cheesemakers sell directly to restaurants, helping servers, cooks, and restaurateurs stay on their feet ensures that makers still have restaurants to supply in the future. 

Some of the efforts highlighted above target specific regions, so be sure to read the fine print to determine eligibility. Likewise, details of relief efforts are ever-changing, so keep checking these links for updates. 

We here at culture are doing our part to encourage shopping independent makers and retailers, especially now as our people are hurting. For a limited time, spend $100 at your local cheese shop and receive a free one-year subscription to culture. Shop your local cheese retailer online for home delivery or no contact pickup, then post your haul to Facebook or Instagram, tag us, and send us a direct message with a picture of your receipt and your mailing address (US residents only). 

Comment below with links to any industry relief efforts we missed!  

Margaret Leahy

Margaret Leahy is the former Associate Editor for culture.

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