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 this weekend’s Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster.
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 backyard 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 got home, 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 with cows’ milk.
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.
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 just outside 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.
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 area. For the afternoon milking, Michael gets help from some high school students.
Each sheep produces about three to four pounds of milk per day, Colleen said. A gallon weighs 8.6 pounds. They typically collect 38 to 40 gallons every three days.
Although she was experienced in gourmet cooking, Colleen had no experience in cheese making before deciding 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 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.
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.
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 at www.shepherdsmanorcreamery.com.