Vermont dairy farming takes a woolly turn

The state, famous for its sharp cheddar, adds sheep dairies in aneffort to capitalize on Americans' appetites for ovine cheese.

The first time one of New York's premiere cheese mongers tasted the Majors' homemade Vermont cheese, he spat it out.

"It was dry, it was acidic, it was horrible," admits Cynthia Major, owner of the state's first modern sheep dairy "He told us he knew we could do better."

That was almost 10 years ago. Since then, the Brattleboro family farmers have done better. They not only produce a mouthwatering, award-winning cheese but they've also helped reinvigorate and fortify Vermont's threatened agriculture base.

By reintroducing sheep dairies whose primary purpose is to make high-quality cheese, the Majors have sparked a new cottage industry that's fast becoming a key factor in helping Vermont and other New England states maintain their rolling green hills and family farms. Vermont, for example, lost 150 dairy farms during the past two years.

"We don't have the extensive tracts of farmland that exist out in the Midwest, so that makes it difficult for us to compete on the basis of production or price," says Roger Clapp of the Vermont Department of Agriculture. "Therefore, we really have to specialize in high-quality, value-added products."

Vermont is justly famous for its maple syrup and sharp cheddar cheese. The finer chefs in Boston and New York have now discovered the state's tender, pasture-fed lamb. But the production of sheep's milk cheese is proving to be the fastest-growing segment of these specialty niche markets - not surprising when you consider that the United States imported 70 million pounds of sheep's cheese last year.

Just four years ago, the Majors' was the only working sheep dairy in the state. Thanks in part to a training program and the cheese-making courses they've taught, there are now a dozen sheep dairies around Vermont and a handful in neighboring New Hampshire and upstate New York. Vermont is now the second-largest producer of sheep's milk in the country, next to Wisconsin. Next month, for the first time, the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium will be held in Brattleboro, Vt.

And experts like Steve Jenkins, who are lords over the cheese counters at New York's Fairway Markets, say there's still nowhere near enough sheep's milk cheese to satisfy market demand.

"Sheep's milk is the richest of all milks, which means the mouth feel and the flavor are the most evocative and the most rustic and the most memorable of any of the milks, which is a mouthful - because I worship goat's milk and cow's milk cheeses," Mr. Jenkins says, insisting he's not indulging in hyperbole.

The Faillace family of Warren, Vt., is keenly aware of the fine, nutty flavors and high demand for sheep's milk cheeses - in fact, they've staked their future on it.

After spending several years in England, where Larry Faillace finished a PhD in animal sciences, they came to Vermont in 1993 looking for a way to run a successful agriculture operation that could involve the whole family.

In 1996, the Faillaces brought over their first East Friesian milk sheep from Europe and New Zealand and started helping other area farmers import them as well.

It's taken three years for their farm to really get off the ground, but as they'd hoped, it's proven to be a true family operation.

Francis, who's 15 years old, manages the pastures and the herding of the sheep with the help of a llama. Heather, 13, is in charge of milking the 20 sheep - which she prefers to do by hand, twice a day. And Jackie, who's just 12, is the family's chief cheesemaker.

Both the Majors and the Faillaces hope other farmers will decide to start sheep dairies as well. Both families have been generous with advice and training. The Faillaces' specialty is breeding and genetics, but they also teach cheese-making courses.

The Majors have built a large curing cave that will hold up to 70,000 pounds of their award-winning Vermont Shepherd cheese.

To help keep up with demand, the Majors have taught six neighboring sheep dairies their recipe. The other farms make the basic, unaged cheese, then sell that to the Majors, who then cure it and market it under their label.

During this, their first official year making Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley cheese, the Faillaces are confident they'll have no trouble selling their wares.

"The marketing is the easiest part of the whole thing," says Linda Faillace. "We have people who've been waiting for the product, who've said, 'We'll sell your cheese' even before they tasted it, because there's such demand for sheep's milk cheese."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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