Small-scale cheesemakers in Washington, including those in the Skagit Valley, have been hit hard by the temporary closure of farmers markets and declining restaurant sales resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cheesemakers saw an immediate 75 to 100% loss in sales the last two weeks in March, said Lindsay Slevin, president of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association.
“The majority are very small, farmstead cheesemakers, and most are selling in local farmers markets or to chefs or direct from the farm,” she said. “The impact is really, really heavy.”
The association has started a Buy Local Cheese campaign to help boost sales for cheesemakers. This month, Haggen stores are offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal for artisan cheese from creameries in the state.
Slevin said the campaign is helping more cheesemakers get their products in grocery stores for the first time, and encouraging shoppers to buy more locally made cheese.
“Because that’s not what everyone is going to the grocery store for,” she said.
Roger Wechsler, co-owner of Samish Bay Cheese in Bow, said farmers markets and sales from his retail shop had been the primary sources of income for the farm, which milks about 40 cows, and makes cheese and yogurt.
Due to declining sales, he said the farm had to cut back on staff and reduce its cheesemaking days.
Wechsler said the farm is pushing to do more sales through the Puget Sound Food Hub, which is allowing the public to purchase directly from farmers, and in grocery stores in the region.
He said three of Samish Bay’s cheeses — a creamy spreadable cheese called vache, extra sharp gouda, and feta — are in Haggen stores.
“The quality of all the local cheeses is excellent, and it’s all artisan, small-scale, hands-on kind of work. It’s a labor of love,” he said. “People who like it really appreciate it. We just need more people to connect to.”
He said the farm offers curbside pickup at the Bow farm, shipping, and is selling at limited farmers markets.
Samish Bay Cheese will be at a modified Bellingham Farmers Market on Saturday, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wechsler said the farm will be unable to offer samples, or cut fresh cheeses for customers.
The Anacortes Farmers Market is hosting an online market this month.
Slevin said a difference between larger creameries and small cheesemakers is that the smaller producers do most everything by hand, with no automation or scale, and have high standards for the treatment of animals.
“People often wonder why it’s more expensive to produce local cheese,” she said. “It’s not in the same ballpark as a commodity product. It’s worth every penny.”
She said consumers can help local cheesemakers keep producing by choosing how they spend their grocery money.
Jessica Gigot, owner of Harmony Fields in Bow, said the farm plans to have cheese available in late April, after baby lambs are born.
Golden Glen Creamery in Bow is also participating in the Buy Local Cheese campaign.