The hunger to connect with other women is strong. So strong that it pulled 40 women from around the world to a small cattle farm in Accord, New York on a sunny Saturday in May to attend the first annual Meeting of the Milkmaids—a heretofore unknown event billed as a gathering of women in cheese.
The cheese industry is ripe with opportunities to gather. We’re a social crowd, full of gregarious turophiles eager to talk shop and welcome new curd nerds to the gang. Not many people grow up dreaming of being a cheesemaker or a monger, but somewhere along the line we all got bit by the cheese bug and couldn’t help but get sucked into the bottomless vat that is the cheese industry.
I say bottomless because if you ask someone in the cheese biz, they’ll probably say they were intrigued by how deep the knowledge well goes. Behind each cheese are hundreds of tiny factors making up the final product. What time of year was it when the cheese was made? Were the cows on pasture? What type of rennet was used? Was it washed? If so, how often? There’s a lot to know and no one can possibly know it all. We’re all experts in our own little niche and bring something new to the table.
Trade events like the American Cheese Society’s annual conference, the Cheesemonger Invitational, and culture’s Counter Culture workshops provide ample opportunity to connect with fellow industry professionals. And while these events are wonderful for learning about cheese, exchanging contact info, and sharing a beer, they can sometimes feel a bit masculine, not to mention the fact that many mongers and makers will never have an opportunity to attend these events due to financial or time constraints.
Enter Becky Collins Brooks, owner of Catskill Waygu in Accord and farmstead cheesemaker. While recovering from achilles replacement surgery, which required her to be homebound with limited mobility for almost a year, Becky turned to her online community for support and friendship. The idea for the Meeting of the Milkmaids was born during her days in the recliner, dreaming of bringing her online world into the real one. When Becky asked Lily Orr, Rachel Waschitz Banks, Babs Perkins, and Indigo Munoz-Weaver if they were interested in helping make this meeting happen, all of them jumped at the opportunity without hesitation.
Each of the women brought a unique perspective and skill set to the team. Lily began making cheese at home and now is a cheesemaker at Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut; she and Becky connected over mental health in cheesemaking and dairy farming. Rachel is a cheesemaker at Ordinary Farmstead in East Aurora, New York; she and Becky are both awaiting the completion of a dairy so they can sell their cheeses commercially. Babs is a photojournalist whose work focuses on the beauty of diversity in the natural and cheese world. And Indigo is a home cheesemaker and RN specializing in maternal and newborn care.
These women were sold on the idea, but would everyone else be? The answer was yes. Tickets sold out quickly after the event was announced in January. Even though none of the attendees knew what to expect, the mere promise of a day spent alongside women in cheese was enough to get us to buy tickets and make travel plans. Attendees traveled from Pittsburg, Boston, Canada, and even the UK to attend the meeting.
When the day finally came, we arrived early in the morning, unsure what to expect. We were immediately met with open arms from Becky and Lily, and an impressive breakfast spread. All 40 of us packed into what felt like a tiny room above the barn and started chatting and getting to know one another. What immediately struck me was the incredible breadth of professions represented in the room. There were home cheesemakers, store owners, mongers, journalists, sales reps, and farmers who had all come together to talk about womanhood and cheese. I’ve never been at a cheese industry event with people from so many different corners of the industry.
Once the room quieted down, we heard from Mary Casela, recipient of the 2021 Daphne Zepos Research Award, who shared her research into the historical role of women in cheese. Traditionally, cheesemaking was seen as women’s work and it was only during the industrial revolution when cheesemaking began to become automated that it became dominated by men.
We all face hardships as women, but being a woman in dairy farming has its own special set of challenges. There are issues of credibility, physical ability, respect, and of course, blatant sexism. We commiserated, jumping off one another’s experiences with toxic masculinity and not feeling heard. We encouraged everyone to speak up, and were quick to point out how many times we’d all apologized for speaking out of turn, a trait that seems uniquely feminine in our society. This was a space made by women, for women, and it felt awesome.
After Mary, we heard from Babs about her work documenting “endangered” cheeses in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Over the last 10 years Babs has spent a combined 24 months in the region, photographing and preserving cheesemaking traditions. Her work uses cheese as a lens to view larger political divides in the region. Even more powerful than her photos were her words. Her advice to “let fields lie fallow in order for them to be productive” is still ringing in my ears.
Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was talk of menstruation. Yes, there were cheers to dismantle the patriarchy and capitalism. But these cheers were only half-serious, because while we may agree with that sentiment, this was a pragmatic and driven group of women interested in addressing the challenges we face every day and the strides we can take as individuals to overcome them.
While the struggles we face as women are not unique to the cheese industry, I do believe the sense of camaraderie is rare and should continue to be fostered.