Sheep's Milk Cheese
Award-Winning Cheese Brings Premium Prices to Sheep Producers
|Above: Demand for premium farmstead sheep cheese has encouraged the Majors to teach other Vermont farmers how to milk sheep and make raw cheese, which they then ripen in their cheese cave. Photo by Valerie Berton.|
After early, unsuccessful attempts to produce flavorful cheese from their sheep flock, Cynthia and David Major traveled from their Vermont farm to France to learn how to create a tastier product. Now, they not only command high prices from specialty food shops, restaurants, and web and mail order sales for their cave-ripened Vermont Shepherd's sheep cheese, but demand also consistently outstrips their supply. To help fill that breach, they recruited other farmers in hopes that they, too, could add value to sheep dairy products. Using a SARE producer grant, Cynthia Major recruited experts in sheep pasturing and dairying to teach would-be cheese-makers how to create a premium product. Since then, nine producers have sold week-old cheese to the Major farm. The farmers make cheese only during spring and summer when the sheep graze on fresh pasture grasses and herbs, and each follows the same traditional European mountain cheese recipe. Once the cheese reaches the Majors, it is aged in the cheese cave, a 1,500-square-foot cellar, for four to eight months, depending on the cheese. Six farms now collaborate to make Vermont Shepherd cheese, a premium brand that won "best of show" in the American Cheese Society's annual competition in 2000. The labor-intensive process requires the cave's cheese ripener to turn and brush each wheel of cheese every other day. In return for their hard work and attention to detail, the Majors receive up to $18.50 per pound. The Majors developed a guide and resource list, "The Joy of Cheese-Making," and concluded the project with a workshop for other interested sheep farmers.
[For more information, go to http://www.sare.org/projects/ and search for FNE97-178]