The Whey Forward: How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Vermont’s Farmstead Cheese Industry | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

The Whey Forward: How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Vermont’s Farmstead Cheese Industry

by and

Published August 18, 2020 at 1:14 p.m.
Updated December 23, 2020 at 6:00 p.m.

Melanie Webb visiting the Jersey cows whose raw milk she uses to make cheese at Stony Pond Farm - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Melanie Webb visiting the Jersey cows whose raw milk she uses to make cheese at Stony Pond Farm

At the Burlington Farmers Market on August 8, Orb Weaver Creamery's cheese was all dressed up, wrapped in paper celebrating the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. In a normal year, more than 40 of the state's cheesemakers would have been gearing up to spend the next day at Shelburne Farms sharing samples, pairing cheeses with local food and wine, and basking in the glory of the high-summer festival.

As with most large summer gatherings, though, the festival didn't happen this year: In July, the Vermont Cheese Council announced the cancellation of the 12th annual event. In the announcement, the council shared how its focus has changed over the past few months. "Instead of planning for the festival ... we are mostly trying to help cheesemakers keep their doors open...," the statement said.

Indeed, the council has been trying to help its members make up for the 25 to 75 percent losses many have reported since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For cheesemakers, it's not easy to pivot," Marty Mundy, the council's executive director, told Seven Days in a recent phone call.

In April, the council launched an online directory to help connect the state's cheesemakers to consumers in Vermont and beyond. Many small producers were feeling the immediate impact of closures in the restaurant and food service industries — both within the state and in urban markets throughout the Northeast. And consumers were skipping the specialty cheese counter in favor of stocking up on staples from the grocery store dairy case.

Cheese sales comprise $650 million of Vermont's $1.3 billion annual dairy industry revenue, according to data collected by the state Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Dairy Promotion Council. Small-scale producers — including farmstead cheesemakers, who make cheese with milk from their own herds — represent 37 of the council's 54 members and $100 million to $250 million of those overall sales, said Diane Bothfeld, director of administrative services and dairy policy at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

As sales slowed and cheese piled up in aging caves for some of the smaller, artisan producers, they were forced to reevaluate their production and sales strategies. Some farmstead producers reduced their herd size or dried off their animals early so they weren't producing milk through the rest of the season.

Jasper Hill Farm provided a high-profile example when it announced at the end of March that it had dispersed its herd of Ayrshire cows. In June, reported that Grafton Village Cheese, which has been producing cheese in southern Vermont since 1892, was exploring consolidating its two manufacturing spaces, in part due to losses during the pandemic.

"The cheese story continues to be very confusing," Mundy said, explaining that despite the losses many faced, some Vermont cheesemakers actually reported increases in sales. "There are some folks who are doing really well, and there are some who are struggling. But one of the strengths of the Vermont farm and food system is, it's based on people doing what they need to do to make it work."

As restaurants have been able to reopen and relief funding has started to help some producers pay their bills, the tone among producers has been optimistic. "Some of it is the strength and resilience and grit of cheesemakers," Mundy said. "They feel like they can pull through."

Size Matters

Zack Munzer and Kate Turcotte of Orb Weaver Farm - FILE: CALEB KENNA
  • File: Caleb Kenna
  • Zack Munzer and Kate Turcotte of Orb Weaver Farm

At Orb Weaver, owners Kate Turcotte and Zack Munzer realized in mid-March that they had to sell two cows, reducing their small herd to 10. The couple took over the business in December 2018 from founders Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack and had spent the 2019 season building their cheese inventory, with minimal sales.

"It was pretty obvious things were going to really change for us," Turcotte said. "We were definitely still getting off the ground, and we were really kind of planning on the spring of 2020 being the start of our business."

Cutting production allowed the couple to lower their grain costs; both also continued to work at off-farm jobs, which provided an essential and steady source of income. Being small and relatively new — and reacting quickly — gave them options that larger, more established producers might not have had.

"That was our superpower," Turcotte said. "Our limitation is mostly just the time we have in the day."

When the state's restaurants shut down, she and Munzer launched mail order and began to offer Friday afternoon curbside pickup at the creamery. Direct-to-consumer sales, rather than selling through a distributor or to a restaurant or cheese shop, gives them "the full dollar," Turcotte noted. "For any producer, that direct dollar is very powerful."

Orb Weaver cheeses — each named after a cow from the founders' original herd — also have an increased presence at farmstands this summer, as well as at the Burlington Farmers Market.

"Between mail order and the farmstands — we work with maybe 10 different farmstands throughout Vermont — it's been amazing how many pounds of cheese we've been able to sell," Turcotte said. "It shows the resilience of our food system."

Orb Weaver Creamery's Frolic, wrapped in paper celebrating the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival - COURTESY OF ORB WEAVER CREAMERY/KATE TURCOTTE
  • Courtesy Of Orb Weaver Creamery/kate Turcotte
  • Orb Weaver Creamery's Frolic, wrapped in paper celebrating the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival

With those smaller, direct-to-consumer sales, though, they've had to adjust their processes and pricing structure. Rather than drop off an entire wheel of cheese at a restaurant or cheese shop, they now cut up that wheel and vacuum-seal pieces of cheese portioned for individual consumers.

"Cut-and-wrap is kind of dead," Turcotte said. "Even some co-ops don't want to cut our cheese anymore."

Pre-cutting creates a whole new series of challenges for small producers as they take on that added labor. Furthermore, standardizing the sizes of those cheese pieces is no easy feat, whether during the cutting process or when producing smaller cheeses from the start.

"We make a cheese called Frolic, and we always try to make it in one-pound sizes, but it's really hard to do!" Turcotte said with a laugh. "We're working with people to try to get them to understand that we're not machines."

Still, the relationships they've created with the farmstands and with the community in general through direct sales represent an adaptation the couple hopes to continue in the long term.

"People's farmstands are just so much busier," Turcotte said, "so they are able to take on wholesale accounts. If we're going to split the [profit] of a piece of cheese, I'd love it to go to the veggie farmer down the road. That's a really rewarding part of all this."

The Dairy Case

Clif Cheney and Jason Jarvis at Neighborly Farms of Vermont - MOLLY ZAPP ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Molly Zapp ©️ Seven Days
  • Clif Cheney and Jason Jarvis at Neighborly Farms of Vermont

At Spring Brook Farm in Reading, cheese program director Jeremy Stephenson also saw the need for individually wrapped cheese wedges. Stephenson, current president of the American Cheese Society, said it's a necessary adaptation across the industry.

Spring Brook's overall sales have dropped to about 70 percent of last year's, he said. Though monthly sales in January and February were good, they've been quite low since March. Pre-pandemic, most of Spring Brook's sales had gone to the food service industry through distributors; last year, airline companies bought pallets of cheese to serve on flights to Europe. Now, the farm is investing in the cost-intensive equipment needed to package cheeses for mail order.

"The reason the impacts on our small cheese industry are so tough to watch is the knockout effect for the dairy farms, and then the landscape and the agricultural community," Stephenson said. "We've seen the challenges for dairy quite clearly for some time, and small cheesemakers have definitely been part of helping to support small dairy."

The challenges cheesemakers are facing now — investing in new formats and markets despite lower sales — are inevitable, Stephenson thinks. He sees this as a great time to reevaluate what the industry is doing, and why.

"Companies who are well positioned to get their high-quality products into bigger markets with prepackaging are doing really well," he said. "Nobody's products have changed, nobody's quality has changed, but some companies are doing really well this year and others are not, and it usually falls along those lines."

Neighborly Farms of Vermont is one of the companies doing well. The third-generation family farm in Randolph Center sells organic, prepackaged farmstead cheeses, including traditional sharp, raw-milk and flavored cheddars.

Neighborly Farms cheese - MOLLY ZAPP ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Molly Zapp ©️ Seven Days
  • Neighborly Farms cheese

During a break from making garlic-and-herb cheddar last week, owner Linda Dimmick wrote in an email to Seven Days that Neighborly Farms has been less affected by the pandemic than other farmstead cheesemakers in Vermont because it makes a prepackaged cheese that's sold almost exclusively at grocery stores and natural food markets.

"I feel guilty," Dimmick said later that day on the phone, as the farm's calves mooed in the background. "March was up, like, 45 percent in sales, and April was 35 percent."

Stephenson said Neighborly Farms is a perfect example of what's working now and where the industry as a whole could be headed.

"She shouldn't feel guilty about anything," he said. "They work really hard. They're just a family farm, but they've always packaged and sold in the dairy case. [Neighborly is] that special cheese you could pick out of the dairy case that was organic and made in Vermont."

Neighborly Farms cheeses are distributed throughout New England, in New York and down the East Coast to Washington, D.C. When the shutdown began and food procurement was largely limited to grocery shopping, Dimmick said orders from grocery stores and home delivery services in larger cities doubled and quadrupled.

"It was scary, in a way," she said. "The orders would get bigger and bigger."

Sales have leveled off now, and the farm is working to build back to its normal benchmark inventory, Dimmick said. One of her big concerns, though, continues to be the physical threat of contracting the virus.

"We are a very small work crew of two full-time and two part-time people," she wrote. "I was really on pins and needles each week, because I felt, if one of us got sick, we would definitely have to shut the whole place down. I don't want to brag, because tomorrow could be totally different."

New Kids on the Block

Jersey calves in a pasture at Stony Pond Farm - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Jersey calves in a pasture at Stony Pond Farm

Despite the challenges the pandemic has created for the cheese industry, Tyler and Melanie Webb were not deterred from starting a new operation at Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield.

The organic dairy has been a member of the farmer-owned Organic Valley cooperative since 2007, but the couple has also been working to diversify and strengthen the farm's overall viability. In addition to producing fluid milk, they've operated a burger stand at the Burlington Farmers Market, sold value-added meats and offered farm stays. In 2019, they began getting into cheese.

"We've been making really superior-quality milk for a lot of years — milk that would be ideal for a cheesemaker," Tyler told Seven Days last week. "We finally got the courage to recognize that maybe we could just be the cheesemaker."

The Webbs started bringing their milk to Does' Leap in Bakersfield early last summer; the goat dairy supported them, teaching them to make cheese while the Webbs used their facilities to develop recipes and put together a business plan.

Melanie, who has taken on the role of cheesemaker, made batches of Swallow Tail Tomme — an aged, raw-milk cheese — at Does' Leap until January, when the Stony Pond herd was dried off for the year.

The farm's herd is seasonal, and all of its cows calve at about the same time beginning in mid-March. This schedule aligns the cows' peak milk production — typically 90 to 120 days after calving — with Vermont's peak grass production to produce the highest quality milk, Tyler explained. This year, Stony Pond cows had 65 calves in 35 days.

"The downside is that we're making the majority of our milk in May, June and July — exactly when our co-op doesn't need it," he said.

Like most commercial dairy enterprises, Organic Valley receives a surplus of milk in May, June and July when the cows start eating grass again. During that period, the co-op institutes a $3 deduction per hundredweight of milk.

"To help our co-op, and to help us reclaim some of that income, we thought maybe we could take a good chunk of that milk, put it in the cheese cave and age it for four to six months," Tyler said.

Stony Pond built that cave, and the rest of its on-farm creamery, with the help of a $65,000 grant from the state's Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. It was a slice of the $1.4 million the program distributed throughout Vermont in its 2020 fiscal year cycle. (Working Lands also directed more than $250,000 to business development in response to COVID-19.) Tyler added that the couple also took out a loan "to invest to make this all happen" and is feeling the pressure of that investment.

Melanie Webb with some of the raw-milk cheese she makes at Stony Pond Farm - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Melanie Webb with some of the raw-milk cheese she makes at Stony Pond Farm

The Webbs had hoped to expand the variety of cheeses they made at the farm beginning in May, but they had ordered a cheese vat from a Dutch producer who contracted the virus. The man has recovered, Tyler said, but the vat that was supposed to arrive on May 1 didn't come until last week.

In the meantime, Melanie has been able to make batches of Swallow Tail using a retrofitted 60-gallon soup kettle. Without the more sophisticated pasteurizing vat, though, all Stony Pond has in its newly constructed cave is 1,000 pounds of the raw-milk cheese.

As a new producer — and one working with high-cost organic milk — Tyler worries that when they start releasing cheese in the coming weeks, they'll be competing with established producers who are liquidating their inventory at rock-bottom prices to make room in their crowded caves.

"We're entering the market right when there's a surplus of cheese," he said. "We're going to have to hope that we're either making something special or that the organic aspect of it is desired enough that we can compete on the cheese shelf at local places."

Instead of relying on sales to restaurants, the Webbs' distribution plan will target more CSAs and farm stores — businesses that have been booming during the pandemic — as well as some of the smaller innovative distribution networks that have popped up. Stony Pond will be one of the first producers involved with BFM Direct, the soon-to-launch digital extension of the Burlington Farmers Market.

"What this has made us realize is that, from a supply-chain standpoint — and from a quality, nutritious, organic food standpoint — the people of Vermont need us to make this product even more than they did back in January," Tyler said.

If the booming business at the state's farmstands this summer is any indication, Vermonters are shortening their supply chains and looking locally. The cheesemakers — and the broader dairy industry they rely on — hope to milk that as long as they can.

Dairy Under Duress

Cows feeding - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Cows feeding

In late 2019 and early 2020, commodity milk prices were finally inching upward after a five-year slump.

"Consumer demand was strong, export markets were steady, and the national number of cows and milk volume was not excessive," explained Diane Bothfeld, director of administrative services and dairy policy at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

Then came COVID-19.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, images of dairy farmers dumping milk were confusingly juxtaposed with bare shelves in supermarket coolers. Global ports had closed. High-volume markets such as schools, coffee shops and restaurants shut down, while grocery sales leapt. Supply chains buckled under abrupt swings in demand.

Most of Vermont's fluid milk dairies sell through co-ops and have no control over where their milk goes or what they get paid, other than premiums earned for quality. Crafting value-added products such as cheese from their milk has enabled some farmers to get off the commodity hamster wheel. But the pandemic has disrupted that market, too, as detailed in the accompanying article.

COVID-19 is just the latest challenge for the state's dairy sector, which has dominated Vermont's image, rural communities and agricultural economy for more than a century.

"To this day, dairy is the predominant agricultural activity upon our landscape and the single largest economic contributor to the agricultural GDP," said Abbey Willard, agricultural development director at the state agriculture agency.

About 650 dairy producers, along with 110 value-added dairy processors, represent $2.2 billion in total economic activity annually, she said — "almost equivalent to tourism in a typical year."

The 900,000-acre physical presence of those farms impacts tourism, too. Dairy-related hay, corn and pasture account for 80 percent of Vermont's agricultural land.

Some aspects of dairy farming may not be positive — such as the potential impact on water quality. But overall, Willard said, tourism "benefit[s] from the dairy industry and those green hills, that open landscape, and [that] agricultural, bucolic kind of background that we sometimes take for granted."

Despite a steady decline in individual farms — down 35 so far this year — milk production and acreage remain relatively constant, consolidated into fewer, larger operations.

The loss of small to midsize dairy farms concerns Sam Smith, a farm business specialist with Burlington's Intervale Center. Revenue from one 1,000-cow dairy and 10 100-cow dairies might be equivalent, he said, but the broader economic and social impacts can be very different.

"With 10 families, there are more kids in the schools, more people to volunteer in the fire department and buy gas at the general store," he explained. "It is really disheartening if you look at the impact [of consolidation] on rural communities."

Smith sees "a hole in the dairy case" for locally produced everyday products that command a reasonable price premium, such as Neighborly Farms of Vermont cheeses (see accompanying article). He also thinks small and midsize dairies could collaborate on value-added processing and marketing.

Willard observed that while the pandemic has been challenging, it has also heightened consumer appreciation of "reliable, consistent, healthy, close-to-home food sources."

To help the dairy sector cover losses and move ahead, the state allocated $25 million of its $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funds. And in early 2021, it will begin awarding funds as the Northeast regional coordinator of a $6.5 million federal dairy innovation grant.

"The volatility is really hard," Willard acknowledged, "but I think there's a lot of opportunity to really look at your business right now and think about the market and think about the customer base that you want to serve."