Thursday, December 23, 2010

Locust Grove Farm, Farmstead Sheep's Milk Cheeses

T'was the Night Before a Snow Storm
By Sheri Palko


T'was the night before a snow storm, when all through the farm
Not a creature was stirring in pasture or barn.
The stock tanks were full and de-icers in place,
And extra buckets were filled to the brim,  just in case.

The sheep they were nestled out under the trees,
With visions of alfalfa piled high to their knees.
And papa in his carhartts, and I in mine too,
Put out plenty of hay for the entire crew.

When out in the pasture there arose such clatter,
I sprang from the tractor to see what was the matter.
Away to the gate I flew like a flash,
And what do I find but a frozen gate latch.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When what to my wondering eyes see through the glare,
A newborn lamb - no wait, it's a PAIR!

With a protective new mama, they were as white as the snow,
How I spied them at all we will never really know.
With wind howling around and the chattering of teeth,
And the gate in the way, maybe I'd crawl underneath.

More exposed to the elements than I really did like,
I tore the gate off the hinges to get to the site.
As I approached like a whirlwind and the ewe she did paw,
I knew those lambs really needed a new bed of straw.

So under each arm, those new lambs they did go,
With momma following close, trudging through the deep snow.
The ewe knew the barn provided shelter from harm,
Where she could dry her new lambs, and feed them in the warm.

With the shelter around them, and clean straw for a bed,
I retired for the night with nothing to dread.
The ewe she would care for her sweet little lambs,
My duty was done, the end of the day's demands.

I retired to the house, finally a building that was heated,
Where the warmth of the fire and hot cider awaited.
As I crawled into bed, all warm, dry and snuggly.
I thanked God for our roof, food and wonderful family.

So I close my eyes knowing that all will be fine,
I've see to all that I can for the safety of mine.
The morning would bring carhartts with boots and warm gloves.
More precious new lambs, and a life that I love.


Sheri Palko Really Loves Her Sheep!

As Sheri Palko pointed out to me,  There are more sheep than goats or cows milked in the world."  And, many of the very lucky ones are being raised on Sheri's farm.  At her lovely website- www.locustgrovefarm.net, she describes exactly how she tends to their needs and it's very clear that Sheri knows what she's doing.  In fact, in 2006, she got the first sheep dairy license in the southeast.

When I asked her to do this interview, she wrote, "Thanks so much for your interest… any time I get a chance to get anyone else interested in anything sheepy I go crazy… I love the sheep, their lambs, the cheese… everything about em…

Just an addict I guess and can’t figure out why everyone who makes cheese doesn’t do it with sheep’s milk… not biased at all huh?"

Sheri loves her sheep, but as many of you know, making cheese is hard work.  She wrote, "Milking 100 ewes twice a day… lambing out and feeding 200 bottle lambs…. Making cheese with 75 gallons of milk every 48 hrs… and doing all the sales, marketing, shipping, invoicing, etc…

That’s more than a full time job… couldn’t do anything else if I had to.  Although… I do attempt (for sanity and fitness reasons) to play tennis 4-5 times a week… otherwise I wouldn’t leave the farm."

Because of the care she takes with her flock, Sheri's farmstead sheep's milk cheeses have become extremely popular.  You will find them on her website (reasonably priced) and you may order by phone or e-mail.   There are 4 varieties of aged sheep's milk cheeses- a semi-hard with a crusty rind, a washed curd (similar to a Gouda), a Manchego, and a Manchego with chilis and spices.  I have tried them all and I can tell you they are fabulous!

Prism, a Belgium Tervuren
How did you get started?

Oh my… well… I'll give you the reader's digest version…

I am a software engineer by degree… those of us who are anal need a hobby - BAD!

As a hobby I trained my dogs for competition obedience and herding…Dogs needed sheep… sheep needed to earn their keep…Nuf said… I'll attach a few pics of my best employees…  

(shown at left and in the picture below).

Got my bachelor's in '85… worked until hubby, Leonard, got Masters (he's a nuclear engineer), and first daughter was born.  Been a "mom" ever since… In addition to being married to the most incredible guy who ever walked the earth… I have 3 wonderful daughters…

Frances, who is a senior in college studying Nutrition and Food Science,

Megan, who is a sophomore in college,

Shannon, who is a sophomore in high school… she has her own flock of tunis sheep which she shows in 4-H and fairs all over the state each year.

When this crazy idea came about in '05 my husband thought I was crazy… as a matter of fact I believe his words were "Honey, if I had wanted to milk something when I grew up, all I had to do was raise my hand… I went to college instead." (He grew up on a large Holstein dairy.)  That said… he is my biggest supporter, number one handiman, electrician, and plumber… and even cooks most dinners during lambing season.

Morning milking with Dixie, a red tri Border Collie.
Do you make cheese year-round?

No ma'am, I only milk and make cheese from mid-January thru August.  I will begin lambing on Jan 4th, 2011 this year, 62 of my ewes are due to lamb the third week in January (that will be the no sleep week)… will finish lambing in February.

All my cheese is "farmstead", which means it's made exclusively from my sheep… so I don't purchase any extra milk.  I only make aged, raw milk cheese, so I do have product to sell year round.

I currently have 1 cave, but we are relocating over the course of the next 3 seasons to a larger farm and we have 2 caves designed on the new property.  That will enable us to experiment and provide more varieties of cheeses.  I made 9000 lbs of cheese this year, full capacity will be about 20,000 lbs in a season.

But… my current cave doesn't have that capacity, so I am holding my production back, but growing my flock, to make the quick jump to full production the final year of the move.

I ship all over the country every Tuesday and do several farmer's markets each week during market season.  We are planning to delve into more agri-tourism on the new property.


What are some of the differences between making cheese with sheep's milk vs cow's or goat's?

In general, sheep's milk components are much higher than goat or cow - actually double.  So, pound for pound, you will get double the cheese yield from sheep's milk.  While sheep's milk is higher in protein and fat, it is actually lower in cholesterol.

Some other unique qualities of sheep's milk are its ability (with proper handling) to be frozen and thawed for cheese making.  Due to the small molecules in sheep's milk it can be frozen without changing any of the qualities of the milk.  For cheese makers who are more familiar with working with other milk, making cheese requires some obvious adjustments from other milk to sheep's milk: 

* Sheep's milk is flocculated and gets firmer in a shorter time… so it is easy to get overset curd with sheep's milk if the proper adjustments aren't made.  Commonly these adjustments are made with a combination of time and rennet dosage.

* The higher fat in sheep's milk means that you will have less drainage ability, the higher protein content will give you a faster hardening time.

* Having slightly less lactose than cow's milk means that  you will have less risk of post-acidification.


Why is it so hard to find sheep's milk?

One of the biggest challenges we face in the US today is quantity - or should I say, lack of.  The dairy sheep industry in the US is considered to currently be the fastest growing dairy industry.  The demand for quality sheep's milk is very high.  Because the development of high quality dairy genetics in the US is still in its infancy, dairy genetics are at a premium.

I will have 200 dairy lambs in 2011… all of which were sold prior to conception in August.  Still, compared to cows, the quantity of milk produced in a season is much smaller.  An exceptionally high producing ewe gives 1000-1500 lbs in a 6-7 month season.

Another challenge the industry faces is lack of ability for many dairy sheep to breed out of season.  This means that fresh sheep's milk is very hard to come by in late fall and early winter.

As an active member and  board member for DSANA (the Dairy Sheep Association of North America), I am currently helping many startup dairies all over the country.  With the proper help in establishing a good business plan, high quality genetics, and excellent product, we hope these dairies will provide an income and lifestyle so many are seeking these days.

What's in the future?

I actually have the "cheese half" of my business up for sale to the right person.  As in… I've tried to hire a quality cheese manager and have not be successful at finding someone who cares as much as I do.  So… I decided to offer that half for sale with a contract to purchase my milk… 

I thought an "owner" might take more of a vested interest attitude.  And also be more qualified than myself to develop new cheeses.  Genetics are my love and my sheep are my passion… that combination produces high quality milk… someone more qualified needs to be using this milk for higher purposes.

Locust Grove Farm, Farmstead Sheep's Milk Cheeses
(865) 388-4123

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