When it comes to award-winning artisanal cheese made with local milk, Meadow Creek is one of the country’s experts. Nestled in the mountains of southwest Virginia, this family-run farm and dairy is familiar with the hands-on, sustainable operation of turning the milk from their own farm into renowned cheeses like Grayson and Mountaineer. We sat down with Kat Feete, one of the owners and General Manager of Meadow Creek, to take a look at how the current circumstances have affected the farm’s operations and how they’ve risen to the challenges of producing cheese during unprecedented times.
What are some of the biggest challenges the dairy has faced since the pandemic hit? How did you navigate those challenges?
Like many producers, our biggest challenge has been financial. Up until this April we primarily sold directly to grocery stores, cheese shops and restaurants, with only a small fraction going to retail customers. We lost 90% of our sales in April, over 50% in May, and we’re scrambling to shift to a model that let us reach folks staying safely and sensibly at home! Things are better now, but unfortunately when you’re working with cheese, a sales drop like that is the gift that keeps on giving. Our cellars are normally almost empty when we start making cheese; instead they stayed full, and got fuller. We’ve had to sell cattle and slow down makes, and since all our milk production goes into cheese, that means milking cows and dumping the milk straight down the drain. Aged cheese makes this even more complicated. We’re feeling some financial strain now, but much of the cheese we’re currently making will be sold during the November-December Christmas season or Winter 2021, so we’ll be paying for these reduced makes until at least then.
Has the current situation affected your grazing season at all?
Well, the good news is, neither the cows nor the grass care about human pandemics. There have been some management shifts, though. Normally grass makes up about 80% of the cows’ diet; this year, as part of those cost-cutting measures I mentioned above, once they were through the high metabolic demand period of the spring flush we cut the cow’s grain ration and they’re now at more like 95% grass. Fortunately the rainy summer we’re having has been good for growth, and while there’s been some very notable shifts in the milk composition (largely the lower protein) the cheesemakers hope they’ve met that challenge. We’ll know next month when we start tasting the new cheeses! We are making plans to end the season sooner than usual, with a dry-off in November rather than December, but we’ll see what the fall brings.
Can you share an uplifting story about how the Meadow Creek team or local community has shown up to support the farm during this challenging time?
We’ve all been doing our best to support each other. I suppose the biggest deal for us was when the Paycheck Protection Program happened back in early April. At that time we hadn’t seen a huge drop off in sales and weren’t sure we were going to need that sort of support. Our small, independent local bank got on the phone with us a few days before the program opened and persuaded us that yes we absolutely needed to apply for this, and then worked like crazy to make sure we got the paperwork we needed filled out and in their hands so that we’d be first in line the day of filing. We’re so grateful our local institution was stepping up to bat for local businesses.
Have your plans for the future of your cheeses or the farm changed at all over the past few months?
Right now it feels like everything is changing all the time. Short-term we have switched our focus in the cheeseroom from making the popular but fragile Grayson (which can hold four months at the longest) to making our longer-aged cheeses, Appalachian and Mountaineer. We had some long-term projects under consideration — like building another cellar, since we were short on aging space even before this — that have now been indefinitely shelved. It’s the same sort of plan changes I think are happening in a lot of places: fall back, consolidate, re-assess once things become more stable.
Which cheese is most popular currently?
Appalachian has been our best-seller for a few years now. It also had the biggest dropoff due to pandemic, but it’s still outselling our others. Grayson remains very popular and sells well, and Mountaineer remains our “sleeper” cheese, selling quietly but steadily in a few select markets.
Your Mini Grayson was recently released, any plans to craft more small-format versions of favorites?
The Minis were a cheese we’d made some years ago, as a cheese more specifically aimed at the retail and small consumer market. We picked them up again this year as a direct response to the pandemic; they will likely stay a small-batch cheese that we sell in very limited quantities to a market that’ll use them quickly. With so much in flux, we’re very much looking to diversify our offerings. We don’t have any concrete plans yet for specific cheeses, but one silver lining to this situation is it’s given us the spare milk and spare time to experiment. Stay tuned!
Want to support this Virginia farm and more of America’s artisanal cheese makers? Take a look at our Murray’s for Makers program, aimed at gathering funds for local farms and dairies.