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Vermont Shepherd Champions Sheep's Milk Cheese

By Ross McSwain, Special Correspondent

After years of experimentation, Cindy and David Major of Westminister West, Vermont, have successfully created a classic, award-winning sheep’s-milk cheese, have helped to revitalize a community of farmers and have found a new way to make their farm profitable.

The work has not been easy. In fact, after five years of work to perfect their sheep's-milk cheese, their initial efforts were shattered when America’s only cheese expert spit out their sample and told Cindy Major “never to bring him a cheese like that again. I left the store in tears,” she recalled later.Vermont Shepherd Cheese

The opinion of cheese expert-buyer Steven Jenkins was needed if the cheese the couple were making was to achieve acceptance in the marketplace. Jenkins had previously received the prestigious French designation, “Chevalier du Taste-Formage,” and was looked upon as being the best authority on the East Coast. Since that first experience with the Major’s sheep’s-milk cheese, Jenkins now claims it is one of the country’s best. He includes the Major-produced Vermont Shepherd Cheese on his list of 36 favorite cheeses in America.

Before the Majors could market an acceptable cheese, they had to go to France for two weeks of study on the proper and traditional way of cheesemaking in the mountains of the Pyrenees. Within a few months of their return, Vermont Shepherd Cheese won a national award for Best Farmhouse Cheese in the country.

Today, the Major’s are updating, renovating and expanding their sheep’s-milk cheese making process through the financial assistance of a loan from the National Livestock Producers Association’s Sheep and Goat Fund. The loan is providing funding for an upgrade in milking equipment, cheese processing and handling equipment, and better parking and loading access to the cheese ripening cave. In addition, the loan will provide working capitol to support higher operating costs until financial benefits of the expansion are received and refinancing of current debt at a considerably reduced rate.

The Majors have been extremely successful in recent years, receiving numerous awards for their cheese, including the prestigious “Best of Show” award at the 2000 American Cheese Society’s competition at Sonoma, Calif., and best U.S. Sheep Cheese at the 2001 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.

It all started in 1981 when Cindy and David met. He grew up on the Vermont farm where the couple now live and work. She is the daughter of a New York State dairy operator who runs Elmhurst Dairy in Queens, which is one of New York City’s major milk suppliers. As a youngster growing up, Cindy Schwartz started sampling dairy products and learning about the business.

“My father would send me into the grocery stores to straighten the cartons of milk into nice, neat rows. It was ‘introduction to marketing’ for a kid,” she recalled.Vermont Shepherd Milking

When Cindy and David married and moved to the Major farm property, her father suggested that the couple start milking their ewes and selling the milk for yogurt and feta cheese. In 1984, they bought the U.S. manufacturing rights to a British-patented sheep-milking system and they set up a milking parlor at the farm. The couple continue to make the milking equipment and market it to sheep and goat milk dairies.

During the last 40 years or more, the Major farm has depended on meat and wool, baled hay and the sale of maple syrup as a source of income. The manufacture of cheese has complimented those early years very well, Major notes, because the farm is located on a hillside, thus the steep slopes make it difficult to till and grow crops. However, with good pastureage, easily drained slopes and timber for protection, sheep do well on the farm. The Majors have about 250 ewes, mostly Dorsets, and use East Friesland rams for breeding and improving milk production.

During an average year, Major said he tries to keep from 250 to 300 sheep year-round, of which he milks about 180 head each day during a period from March to November. He doesn’t milk the ewes during the winter, but lets them roam the snow-packed pastures where they are fed hay. The sheep are shorn in late February and when they start lambing in early March, the ewes and lambs are kept in a barn for protection from the elements. Major said the wool is sold to a nearby mill, Green Mountain Spinnery, that makes yarn for homespinners. Some of the wool is scoured and the clean, fluffy fleece is used for packing the cheeses for shipment.

Patterning their cheese-making operation after that found in France, the Majors constructed a cheese cave - a large underground storage area - where the cheeses could be kept at a constant temperature and humidity. The cheese requires a six-to-eight month aging period before it is consumed.Vermont Shepherd Cheese Cave

The cheese cave also is used by Major’s neighbors who also produce sheep’s-milk cheese. The nearby farmers - ranging from a maximum of nine to about four - organized into a guild. They use the same cheese recipe, and each shares in some of the work since the loosely organized group also produces cheeses from cow’s milk as well. Each farm handles its own marketing program, Major said.

The cave can handle about 40,000 pounds of cheese during a season. Expansion plans will allow additional curing capabilities, Major said. The goal of the farmers is to be producing up to 150,000 pounds of cheese within the next five to 10 years.

The cheese cave is an important link in cheese production. One of the neighboring farmers, Charlie Parant, is cave manager and Vermont Shepherd’s official “affineur,” French for cheese ripener. His job is to turn, brush or wash the cheeses on a near daily basis to cultivate natural cheese rinds which help to enhance the cheeses’ flavor and give them unique characteristics.

Each year, Vermont Shepherd has several open houses for the cheese cave - one each in August, September and October. The open house programs feature a tour of the cheese cave, the cheese-making room, and provides visitors an opportunity to sample the cheeses and make purchases. The open houses are free and no reservations are required. Dates for the open houses will be posted on the farm’s web site - www.vermontshepherd.com - later in the Spring.

Vermont Shepherd cheese is sold by the pound or by the wheel. It also is offered in several varieties of cheese samplers gift packs. Whole wheels weigh from 6 to 8 pounds. The Vermont Shepherd sheep’s milk cheese sells for $18.50 per pound, plus shipping. Other cheeses offered by the farm run from $14 to $15.50 per pound, plus shipping. The cheeses can be ordered over their web site at www.vermontshepherd.com.


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