Recently the husband-and-wife owners of Georgia’s acclaimed Many Fold Farm posted a dismaying announcement on Facebook: On January 1, they would cease making cheese.
The news rattled the cheese world because the young creamery seemed to be thriving, with a blue ribbon for Condor’s Ruin (above right) at the American Cheese Society competition, a second-place finish for the aged Peekville Tomme, and a growing presence for its sheep’s milk cheeses in influential shops.
Ross and Rebecca Williams purchased their farm in Palmetto, Georgia, in 2009. They introduced their first cheeses three years later and now manage 200 East Friesian dairy sheep. Their ambition—to provide a successful example of sustainable, pasture-based farming in the South—now seems heartbreakingly out of reach.
What does the Williamses’ experience say about the future of sheep cheese in the U.S.? For a glimpse of an answer, I spoke with Rebecca about the creamery’s challenges.
How much cheese were you making and was it selling well?
We produced 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of cheese a year, and we could have sold triple what we were making. There was never a problem with the market. The problem was always our ability to produce.
You wrote that making farmstead cheese in the U. S. is more challenging than other types of work. Would you elaborate?
Dairy work is some of the hardest farm work there is. It’s 24/7. You can’t leave. You are tied to the land and the animals. Combine that with the fact there has not been a concerted effort to improve dairy-sheep genetics in the U.S. so that the sheep produce well and thrive in different environments.
You can have your pick of cow breeds that produce good-quality milk and enough volume to run a business. But the sheep dairy flock is not well managed from a utility perspective. None of the breeds is high yielding in a pasture-based setting. They need to be kept indoors, on high-energy feed. If that’s not your philosophy or you don’t have capital to house sheep indoors, it’s hard to get the volume of milk you need. So you end up milking hundreds of animals that aren’t giving enough to have an efficient system. Where you could get by milking 60 cows, you have to milk 300 sheep or more. That’s just incredibly labor intensive.
You didn’t realize that before you started?
I knew we were going to be pioneers, but if we had known that it was going to be this hard we probably wouldn’t have done it. Our original business-plan numbers were from research in Europe where they have completely different dairy stock. We were getting less than a liter of milk a day (per ewe).
Unless we really start getting proactive about developing a robust North American sheep dairy breed, it’s going to be challenging for farms to produce all of their own milk. Everyone in the sheep dairy industry is buying milk from somebody else. Because of our location, there was nowhere to buy milk without trucking it thousands of miles on freezer trucks, which didn’t jive at all with what we were trying to do.
The issue with bringing in dairy genetics from overseas is scrapie (a degenerative nerve disease). The USDA is always anxious about bringing in semen. They brought in genetics a few years ago for an Israeli dairy breed, the Awassi. We bought an Awassi-cross ram. We have not milked his daughters yet, but the survival rate is not super-good. They have bad feet and poor resistance to environmental pathogens. So it’s dicey. You spend $3,000 on a ram and don’t know if it’s going to work.
What’s the plan for your sheep?
The plan is to probably slowly sell them over the years as we figure out what we’re going to transition to. For now, they’re good for pasture management. We know that we’re not going to continue to raise dairy sheep in the foreseeable future.
Do you see a way to get back into cheesemaking? What might work?
I’m not interested in just being a cheesemaker. I’m interesting in using cheese to educate about good land stewardship. So it would have to be farmstead cheese, but I’m tired and not ready to start thinking about that. I could probably come up with a way that was more sustainable, but it would have to be cows.
You wrote that “problems of education” plague the movement toward better food. Would you elaborate?
People are accustomed to food being inexpensive because our system is scaled to produce vast quantities at a really low cost. If we had been able to incorporate into the price of our cheese the ability to finance an on-farm breed-improvement program, that would have worked but no one would pay.
Yet yours were almost always the most expensive cheeses in the stores where I shopped.
Many cheesemakers are not charging what it costs to produce. We wanted to create soft- ripened cheese, and to move volume we needed distributors. They require a markup. We sold directly to some cheese shops and they were doing 70 percent to 100 percent markup. But where was our 100 percent markup?
What does the immediate future look like?
The immediate future is to take a break and visit some other farms to get some perspective. To think about what we can do with our land and resources and knowledge. More than anything, we need a big reset moment for our lives and aspirations. Yes, we were farming sustainably in terms of our practices, but in terms of financial resources and personal energy, it was not sustainable.
2017 World Cheese Tour Announced
Join me for an evening of artisan cheese and fine wine when the World Cheese Tour resumes for the seventh year. We’ll be returning to the lovely Silverado Cooking School in Napa for these tastings, each one devoted to a different theme. Highlights: Raw-Milk Cheese Showcase in April, a first for the WCT; Sheep’s Milk Cheeses from Near and Far in June; and a New & Notable from Europe class in October to introduce you to the next big stars. Looking for holiday presents or house gifts? Class gift certificates always fit!