Shepherd Champions Sheep's Milk Cheese
By Ross McSwain,
of experimentation, Cindy and David Major of Westminister West,
Vermont, have successfully created a classic, award-winning sheeps-milk
cheese, have helped to revitalize a community of farmers and have
found a new way to make their farm profitable.
has not been easy. In fact, after five years of work to perfect
their sheep's-milk cheese, their initial efforts were shattered
when Americas 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.
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 Majors sheeps-milk cheese, Jenkins
now claims it is one of the countrys best. He includes the
Major-produced Vermont Shepherd Cheese on his list of 36 favorite
cheeses in America.
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.
the Majors are updating, renovating and expanding their sheeps-milk
cheese making process through the financial assistance of a loan
from the National Livestock Producers Associations 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.
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 Societys competition
at Sonoma, Calif., and best U.S. Sheep Cheese at the 2001 U.S. Championship
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 Citys major milk suppliers. As a
youngster growing up, Cindy Schwartz started sampling dairy products
and learning about the business.
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.
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.
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
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 doesnt 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.
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
cave also is used by Majors neighbors who also produce sheeps-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 cows milk as well. Each farm
handles its own marketing program, Major said.
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.
cave is an important link in cheese production. One of the neighboring
farmers, Charlie Parant, is cave manager and Vermont Shepherds
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.
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 farms web site -
www.vermontshepherd.com - later in the Spring.
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 sheeps
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.