Sustainably staying afloat through community.
Farms and creameries around the country are diversifying their marketing and sales strategies to try to set themselves apart. Some are ushering product into neighborhoods at farmer’s markets or in grocery stores, and others are meeting customers exactly where they are by offering Community Supported Agriculture shares, or CSAs.
Every farm has a slightly different process for this, but most are very similar: customers purchase a “share”, either directly from a creamery or from a farm that makes cheese or has partnered with a cheesemaker, and that customer receives a number of cheeses or dairy products on a regular basis throughout a season.
The buy-in from CSA customers at the beginning of a season allows cheesemakers to have the kind of monetary freedom they need to make the cheese they love without many limitations.
“The best part of the CSA model is money up front, guaranteed sales and, more than anything, committed, loyal customers,” says Louella Hill, co-owner and cheesemaker at Ballerino Creamery, located in Staunton, VA. “I think it is extremely important to have alternative ways for producers to reach consumers—especially ways that don’t involve multiple middle people or are overly vulnerable to weather or market fluctuations.”
Karen Lundquist, executive director of the Denver-based American Cheese Society, says that CSAs are a way to help build transparency and connection. “It also creates a localized connection with other producers and consumers, building stability and support that can help smaller producers compete on a larger scale, including partnerships in marketing that increase the impact on a larger scale.”
CSAs keep cheesemakers from having to take out operating loans each season and determine a consistent production schedule, all while providing a way to build lasting relationships with customers, especially new customers and those who may be geographically farther away from the creamery.
“Our CSA lets people have a direct connection to our farm and what we do,” says Jessica Gigot, milker and cheesemaker at Harmony Fields. “As farmstead cheesemakers, we have to manage several things at once, from sheep health to pasture to milk quality and cheese flavor. The goal of our CSA is to build awareness of the effort involved in milk and cheese production and to spread information on the benefits of small batch, farmstead cheese.”
How it Works
Harmony Fields, located in the Skagit Valley of Washington, offers a summer sheep cheese CSA that runs annually from June to August, with boxes available every other week. The farm delivers cheese to a few drop off points in Bellingham and Seattle, and share members can pick up their farmshare at Harmony Fields’ farmstand, as well.
Mandy Arrowsmith, co-owner and cheesemaker at Hillacres Pride in Landsdowne, PA, says customers are getting their cheese as add-on shares through partnerships with farms that offer vegetable CSAs. “We feel it is good for both us and the CSA for them to be more of a one-stop-shop for farm goods,” she says. “We deliver the shares pre-packed in small bags so the CSA only has to give each person a share bag. We offer two cheeses every other week for 11 deliveries.” Arrowsmith says that, in their tenth year of offering a cheese share add-on, they have also seen an increase in other creameries doing the same.
Terrell Creek Farm in Fordland, MO, operates in a similar way, offering their CSA through Millsap Farms, a local organic vegetable farm. When customers sign up for Millsap’s CSA, they are able to add on a “cheese share” for the season for an extra fee. Customers who purchase a cheese share pay less per cheese than they would if they purchased at the farmers market or through a retail outlet.
“This is our third year offering our CSA cheese share through Millsap’s,” says Lesley Million co-owner and founder at Terrell Creek Farm. “They asked us if we would be interested in doing it and if we could supply customers throughout their season. It has been a good way to get our cheese to new customers and expand awareness. It gives us the ability to move out whatever variety we have extra of, and it is a steady amount from week to week.”
Another example of a cheese add-on is Cosmic Wheel Creamery located within Turnip Rock Farm, in Clear Lake, WI. This farm serves the Minneapolis/St. Paul area right over the state border. Rama Hoffpauir, owner and cheesemaker at Cosmic Wheel, says that their cheese CSA is part of their whole farm CSA, which also offers organic vegetables and meat.
Creating options for fresh, local produce and dairy products isn’t the only benefit for both farm and consumer. Gigot of Harmony Fields says fostering important relationships with customers and the creativity of curating something special for that customer is the real driver behind their CSA.
Relationships, Creativity & Diversity
“We sell to grocery stores and restaurants, but the CSA is extremely rewarding because we can develop a connection to the customers that believe in what we do and are willing to know the ins and outs of farmstead cheese,” says Gigot. “I value the relationship I have with each member, and the CSA allows us the freedom to be creative. We have a gathering on the farm at the end of the CSA season that allows us to celebrate our hard work and lets our CSA members meet each other and taste small bites made with our cheese by a local chef.”
Lundquist says that having diverse distribution options, like CSA shares and selling in retail stores and to restaurants, also helps guard against unexpected disruptions in normal distribution and supply chains like the ones during the pandemic, providing more avenues for shifting production.
One of the areas the American Cheese Society is currently focusing on is identifying ways the organization can help its members consider how to build in flexibility in their production and distribution, says Lundquist, helping make their smaller operating size a benefit because it allows them to be nimble. “The challenge of working more directly with the people who love eating cheese is in packaging. Cheesemakers need to retool for smaller sizes or different types of packaging, which can mean investment in equipment and more time is needed, both of which drive up cost.”
The CSA model gives farmers and cheesemakers real control of where and when their cheese is sold, but it’s also a platform for agriculture education, emphasizing the importance of small farms, soil health and animal welfare. And of course, there is a certain amount of risk in each farm season. When someone purchases a CSA share in the winter for the following year, it says that they believe in what that farm is doing and that they are there to support their work on the farm. In return, farmers commit to producing high-quality products and include them within the connective process through all the gains and losses.
One of the biggest losses for almost every small or community-owned business across the country has been the rapid outbreak of COVID-19. While many businesses have suffered due to this pandemic, these creameries seem to have had no trouble selling shares. “Before COVID, interest seemed to be waning, and we didn’t sell all of the shares that we wanted to last season,” says Hill of Bellerino Creamery. “COVID caused a rush on food buying, and we sold out of CSA shares quickly. Farmers market sales have gone down drastically, so the CSA has made up for that.”
Lundquist notes that there has been a broad range of impacts, varying by region and the size of the cheesemaker—and most of all by their distribution. “The demand for quality cheese is there, and the supply equation is what needs to be refigured,” she says. “Keeping their staff and customers safe is important, but cheesemakers have always had a commitment and understanding of food safety, so that path is an easier one to travel. Bottom line, we believe smaller producers were hit the hardest, especially those in more rural areas who didn’t distribute online.”
Harmony Fields and Terrell Creek Farm have both noted a significant increase in CSA subscriptions. Million of Terrell Creek says that cheese sales have increased enough to almost make up for income lost when they had to shut down their restaurant. “Besides the increase in the CSA subscriptions, our market and retail sales skyrocketed. We also started offering delivery and curbside pickup. Over the past two weeks, our restaurant customers are coming back, some of them stronger than before, and our retail and market sales have tapered off moderately. I do think some of the changes will be permanent, as will our lives in general.”
Hillacres Pride saw no change in their CSA program. They wholesale to several smaller stores, orchards and specialty shops that are much busier, and the farm is moving more cheese this way. At the farmer’s market, Hillacres is operating on a preorder drive thru-only basis. “We are selling less cheese because we feel that at the market, cheese is an impulse visual purchase; people see it, we sample and they like it so they buy more,” says Arrowsmith.
Rachael Van Laanen, owner of Mystery Bay Farm, actually began offering a CSA as a result of COVID-19. They had lost about 60% of their regular restaurant and cidery customers right as the season was beginning, and a CSA was a way to continue to reach customers from a distance.
Community is in the name, and CSAs are proving to be one major way farms and creameries are staying afloat when other revenue sources dry up, either due to sick livestock, financial insecurity or even the pandemic. “COVID-19 has forced us to spin on our heels and reconsider everything from what cheese we are making to what our lifestyle can be,” says Hill of Ballerino Creamery. “It has been hard but the deep support of our local customer base, especially those who found us early on and joined our Cheese CSA, has made it possible for us to keep going.”