Courtesy of Jasper Hill Farm
When food sources were scarce during the World Wars, American families planted "Victory Gardens," or plots in their own backyards where they could grow their own fruits and vegetables in response to shortages. Now, close to a century later, a different kind of victory food has emerged: Victory Cheese. It's a delicious grassroots initiative that was conceived in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic to help independent American cheesemakers stay afloat. The idea is simple: Order a Victory Cheese Box from a participating cheese store or cheesemaker, then enjoy domestic cheeses you might not have tried before.
Small cheesemakers have been impacted by cancelled cheese festivals, dwindling retail orders, and shuttered restaurants. "The week of March 16, I lost 85 percent of my business," says Allison Lakin, founder and proprietor of Lakin's Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro, Maine. "The timing couldn't have been worse. My cows were not being milked because they were dried off in preparation for giving birth, which meant that I had to still purchase milk in order to make cheese, the conundrum being that without steady income, there wasn't enough money to buy milk." Says Leslie Cooperband, of Prairie Fruits Farms & Creamery in Champaign, Illinois, "Our wholesale sales to restaurants came to a screeching halt. This was devastating as we had planned our spring production season based on these restaurant relationships. We had to freeze a lot of chèvre (thankfully, it can be frozen without compromising quality) and switch gears to produce other cheeses with longer aging requirements."
A wide swath of industry professionals, from local cheese guilds and cheesemongers to larger companies and organizations banded together to create the Victory Cheese Box collective. Each box is curated by an independent cheese store or cheesemaker and features three or four domestic varieties. To promote other (often lesser-known) brands, the curators are required to include a combination of their own and others' cheeses. "The boxes raise the visibility of small, locally produced cheeses that don't have the advertising budget to get recognition outside of a small market," says Lakin. "With each bite of cheese, my hope is that I can form a longer term connection with cheese fans who can continue to seek out my cheese." After the success of their first box, Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery plans to debut another, this time in partnership with Chicago chef Stephanie Izard.
It also speaks to the collaborative nature of cheesemakers. "I was approached by Anna Thomas Bates from Landmark Creamery about collaborating on their Victory cheese box," says Charuth van Beuzekom of Dutch Girl Creamery in Lincoln, Nebraska. "They included my cheese Rosa Maria in their line up of great cheeses, all made by women cheesemakers! I then purchased a cheese of theirs to include in the Victory box I was putting together. This story was repeated all over the country with Victory cheese box collaborations keeping the doors open for farmstead and specialty cheese makers near and far."
Currently, retailers and makers in 23 states across the country and chefs like Art Smith and Rick Bayless have joined the initiative. The result has been very positive both from a financial and promotional standpoint, says Stephanie Skinner, of Culture and a founding member of Victory Cheese. Customers have repurchased Victory Boxes and begun ordering new, previously unfamiliar varieties. One cheesemaker expected to sell 100 boxes total, Skinner recalls. Within a few days, he had sold 250.
The future of dairy farming and artisanal cheesemaking feels uncertain but cheesemakers are staying positive and innovative: Says Cooperband, "We are a resilient bunch, and I know lots of cheesemakers like us are coming up with creative ways to market and sell our cheeses." Helping to keep these makers in business will be a hard-won victory that this new initiative seems poised to take on.