Cheese Therapy: save our cheesemakers!

4th June 2020 | Alison Turner

June 4 is an important date here at Eativity HQ. Why? It’s National Cheese Day! But today is not just the perfect excuse to indulge in a cheeky wedge or two; it’s also a great time to support Australia’s small artisanal cheesemakers, who’ve been doing it tough this year. Many cheesemakers in rural areas were already reeling from impacts of the bushfires when the COVID pandemic hit in March, causing shops to close and the tourist trade to dry up. No longer able to sell from their own cellar door, several traditional cheesemakers were forced to lay off staff. Many feared losing everything. But a tiny cheese company in Queensland has come to their rescue. We meet Sam Penny, founder of Cheese Therapy.

Cheese Therapy founders Sam Penny and Helen Shadforth
Blessed are the cheese sellers: Sam Penny and Helen Shadforth.

Partners Sam Penny and Helen Shadforth founded Cheese Therapy five years ago from their home, selling artisanal cheeses made by traditional cheesemakers to fill a gap that our big supermarkets so often overlook. During the bushfire crisis earlier this year, the cheese-loving pair came up with the idea of a “Therapy Box” – a cheese pack sold online to promote struggling cheesemakers affected by the fires.

“We were contacted by Milawa Cheese in Victoria, which was in a desperate state,” Penny says. “A lot of cheesemakers rely on tourist traffic, and Milawa had made cheese for their summer traffic. These guys have to plan a few months ahead to have that cheese ready and available, and their traffic just dropped by 90 percent.”

It’s not just the sales from the tourist trade that cheesemakers rely upon for their livelihood. People also take that cheese back home with them, remembering it and seeking it out in future – a vital part of the marketing picture. For Milawa Cheese to lose that summer trade and that marketing capability meant that the business might have to fold.

“So we said, ‘Let’s put together a Milawa pack’,” Penny recalls. “We’ll just put it out there and if people buy it, then that’s awesome. I thought we’d sell 50. We sold 2000.”

A Cheese Therapy "Therapy Box"
A Cheese Therapy “Therapy Box”.

After the bushfire crisis, cheesemakers were once again thrown into turmoil with COVID-19. So Penny and Shadforth rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.

“The busiest time for cheesemakers in this country is Easter,” Penny says. “And obviously, all the lockdowns happened just before Easter.

“Suddenly it wasn’t just Milawa who needed help. It was dozens of cheesemakers. So rather than waiting for them to call us, we actively went out there and asked them what their situation was. Some of them didn’t have a lot of stock, some of them did. It was almost like triage; dealing with the worst cases first, and then working our way through.”

The system was an overwhelming success. At the time of writing, Cheese Therapy had sold a staggering 12 tonnes of cheese online and shipped it all over the country, to cheese lovers from the Top End to Tasmania. Dairy Australia says it has never seen such huge quantities of cheese sold by any company, let alone entirely online.

“In one day, we sold 400kg of cheese, and sales keep growing,” Penny says. “We’ve seen a doubling in sales each week. Australians are bloody great at recognising when someone needs a hand up, and the country has really got behind us.”

Grandvewe is just one of the cheesemakers that Cheese Therapy has supported
Grandvewe is just one of the cheesemakers that Cheese Therapy has supported.

The once very small business now represents 10 cheesemaker families across Australia, singlehandedly keeping some remote cheesemakers open. The company has also hired dozens of new staff, from packers and cutters to “Cheese Angels” – delivery drivers across the country who help to get cheese to customers while it’s at peak ripeness – and has now also opened a new warehouse in Melbourne.

“If we lose any of these cheesemakers, we’re losing a very important fabric of our society, and that’s the art of food,” Penny says. “We are very conscious of the fact that a lot of small businesses have had to adapt to survive, so we are doing our best to support others, giving people jobs and creating new opportunities.”

While the past few months have meant back-breaking work and more than a few sleepless nights for Penny and his team, it has also been a hugely rewarding experience.

“It’s been awesome to share the journeys and the stories, the struggles and highlights of our cheesemakers,” he says. “But it’s also a chance to celebrate the art they create.

“Cheesemaking is a centuries-old craft. And National Cheese Day is a real call to arms for cheese lovers to support this small but vital industry.”

Update: Cheese Therapy has now become Artisans Bend, an online marketplace for rural and regional food, wine, coffee, condiments and artisan producers.

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