NEW WINDSOR — Tucked on the outskirts of New Windsor, Shepherds Manor Creamery is the first sheep dairy in Maryland, making artisan cheeses and delicate soaps from their sheep’s milk, which they sell at special events such as The Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster Sept. 15 and 16.
Ten years ago, owners Colleen and Michael Histon couldn’t have guessed that the farm and cheese making business would be in their future. When their children were in 4-H, it was normal to have a few market lambs, of the meat variety, or a dairy heifer in their 2.5-acre back yard in Mount Airy. Once the kids got older and moved on, Colleen continued to raise a few lambs as a personal source of meat, and even got into showing them at the local fairs.
But a trip to Napa Valley, Calif., in 2004 got the Histons thinking about raising sheep in a different way. They were at a farmers market with Colleen’s sister when a cheese monger got Michael’s attention and started telling him about how easy and profitable it was to make cheese from sheep’s milk.
The man told Michael that only 1 percent of the sheep cheese in the United States comes from the United States and there is a huge market for it.
Michael might have thought about it for a while, but Colleen said she doesn’t remember him saying anything about it to her at that time. But two years later, they returned to visit Colleen’s sister, went to the same farmers market, and the same cheese vendor recognized Michael and started talking to them again.
This time they tried six of his cheeses and really listened to what he had to say, and when they went home from the trip, they decided to research it for themselves. They found that there were a lot of great benefits and characteristics of sheep’s milk.
“It’s thicker, it’s creamier, it has a higher fat content and protein content,” Colleen said of sheep’s milk compared to cows’ milk.
40 gallons of milk, new cheeses every three days
If you have lactose intolerance issues, you can still eat or drink sheep’s milk or goats’ milk products, she said. But goats’ milk is a little gamier, and sheep’s milk has a taste closer to cows’ milk.
And while cows’ milk and goats’ milk can’t be frozen, sheep’s milk can because its cell structure is different, she said, and it won’t break down when frozen. On the other hand, sheep’s milk can’t be separated into milk and cream. But the ability to freeze it means that you can save your milk and process it into cheese at a later time, she said, and that sheep dairies can freeze their milk and sell it to other processors.
In 2008, they were ready to take steps toward running a sheep dairy. They contacted the largest sheep dairy in America, Valley Shepherd Creamery in New Jersey, and went to visit, spending a whole day there, learning about their operation.
They met a woman from Virginia at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival who was making and selling sheep cheese, and arranged a deal to buy 14 ewes from her. Wanting to expand their herd, they found a farmer in Wisconsin who could sell them more ewes at a much cheaper price, so on Labor Day weekend 2008, they drove out there and picked out 36 ewes and a ram.
Now with more than 50 sheep, they knew their backyard was not going to suffice. The real estate market was down, and they decided to start looking for land because they would need more of it to run an actual sheep dairy. They had to use some temporary solutions at first, but eventually found and settled on their 22-acre farm on Slingluff Road just outside the town of New Windsor.
They moved in 2010 and became the first sheep dairy in Maryland. They also received one of only five permits available in the state to process their raw milk into an end product rather than having to pasteurize their milk.
Due to reproduction of the herd, the Histons now have 50 ewes. During their milk production season, generally from April through September, Colleen and Michael both get up at 3 a.m. to do the morning milking, then leave for their jobs in the Washington, D.C., area. For the afternoon milking, Michael gets help from some high school students, and Colleen uses that time to work on the cheese.
Each sheep produces about 3 to 4 pounds of milk per day, Colleen said. A gallon weighs 8.6 pounds. They typically collect 38 to 40 gallons every three days, which is how often she makes the cheese to be in compliance with her permit.
In their building, they have a lab to test their milk for antibiotics, which they don’t use, but have to be able to prove that they don’t use to satisfy their permit restrictions. Next door is the cheese storage room, where the different varieties sit during the aging process.
Although she was experienced in gourmet cooking and would arrange elaborate wine pairing dinners for friends and neighbors when they lived in Mount Airy, Colleen had no experience in cheese making before they decided to pursue it professionally. She took two weeks of classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheeses, as well as annual classes held at the Dairy Sheep Association of North America Symposium.
Now she makes four different types of cheese: a salt-brined feta, one of the most traditional forms of sheep cheese; a Colby, for those who are timid about trying sheep cheese; a farmer’s cheese, which is mild tasting and semi-soft so that it is spreadable; and the Tomme, her artisan cheese with a hard rind.
The market price for sheep’s milk cheeses generally ranges from $18 to $35 a pound, Colleen said. They’re planning to market theirs a little low while they are still new, at $19 to $26 per pound, she said, with the semi-soft cheese being at the lower end of that scale and the Tomme at the higher end.
Coming to a restaurant near you?
They are hoping to establish relationships with chefs who could use their cheeses in their restaurants. Michael said he got a kick out of a visit from some chefs from the Mount Airy Tavern who wanted to learn about their cheeses and how they’re made. He offered them a chance to milk the sheep themselves, he said, and was amused as the inexperienced chefs gave milking a try.
The Histons also got a visit this summer from more than a dozen D.C. chefs during the “Chefs Go Fresh Tour,” an event coordinated by Georgetown Media Group and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The chefs only got a brief tour of the dairy and cheese-making facilities, but they also got to taste their cheese, which the Histons hope will lead to future connections and sales.
For now, the Histons have been selling their cheese and sheep’s milk soaps at events, such as the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival and now The Maryland Wine Festival. Now that the milking season is winding down, the Histons are available for farm visits to purchase cheese on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., though requests for tours should be scheduled in advance. Contact information can be found on their website.
While they wanted to start small and get their feet wet during the first few years, they would ideally like to have 70 to 100 ewes, Colleen said, but that would definitely require the hiring of another employee, which they aren’t ready for yet. She’s hoping at some point to be able to make the farm and cheese-making business her main source of employment. For now, her full-time job is working as a financial administrator for a construction company and Michael works with an engineering firm.
Another option that they hadn’t considered but which has made itself apparent is to purchase sheep’s milk from dairy co-ops and focus on cheese-making instead of the farming. Other sheep dairies from across the country have contacted them to see if they were interested in purchasing their milk, she said.
“We could not have any sheep and just make cheese, but that wasn’t the intention,” she said. “We want to do it from start to finish, we want it to be a cool experience and have it be different from what everybody else does.”