In the last six years, the number of entries into the American Cheese Society competition that were made exclusively from sheep's milk jumped 40 percent. As a result, many of these sheep dairies are getting a cult following. The only problem is, there are tricky economics to sheep dairying.
Despite the unprecedented popularity of American sheep cheese on the market, many farmers are becoming disillusioned as they are are continually unable to produce quality cheese at an affordable price.
The Cost of Sheep Cheese
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Laurel Kieffer, a Wisconsin sheep farmer and the president of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America told the New York Times, "A distributor can import manchego for maybe a third of what it costs us to produce." Still, more and more American dairy farmers are taking on the challenge of sheep's milk.
Why? Because cheesemakers love sheep's milk. It has twice as much fat and protein as most cow's or goat's milk, making it easier to produce a rich cheese with nutty aromas and savory flavors.
These natural aromas are perfect for making coveted sheep's milk cheeses like Spanish manchego, Italian pecorino, or French Roquefort. Currently, it is these flavors that are in demand.
Unfortunately, a quality chunk of sheep-y creaminess is going to cost you.
Seana Doughty, the proprietor of Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, California says that it costs her about $13.99 a pound to produce her signature cheese Fat Bottom Girl.
In turn, she sells her product for $38 to $40 a pound. On the other side of the pond, her European competitors like P'tit Basque sell their sheep's milk cheese for $13.99 a pound.
More Sheep's Milk May be on the Horizon
Much of this high cost is due to the fact that sheep produce milk only six or seven months out of the year, and during those months, they do not produce very much. A good ewe, on a good day, may part with three quarts. In comparison, a Holstein cow will typically supply nine gallons a day year round.
However, some sheep dairies see a light at the end of the tunnel. In the upcoming weeks, about 875 samples of frozen Lacaune sheep [a French variety of sheep that has high milk production] semen are scheduled to arrive in the United States. Some of the larger dairy farms are anxiously awaiting the shipment.
"Believe me, it's a bright spot," said Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, Calif. He explained that currently, "We're unable to access the breeds in Europe that are specialized for milk production."
It remains to be seen if this access to new breeding opportunities will enhance the milk production of sheep dairies and lower the cost of getting these delicious cheeses from the farm and into your mouth.
Sheep Cheese Sampler
What are some of these irresistible cheeses that you need to try? Sample some of the acclaimed varieties that the New York Times listed:
BELLWETHER FARMS SAN ANDREAS Three-month-old raw-milk wheel with a lemony scent and sour-cream tang. (Petaluma, Calif.)
BLEATING HEART CHEESE FAT BOTTOM GIRL Raw-milk wheel with aromas of warm butter, clotted cream, pale caramel and toasted nuts. (Tomales, Calif.)
CARR VALLEY CHEESE CAVE-AGED MARISA Three-month-old wheel with hints of brown butter, toasted hazelnuts and damp cave. (La Valle, Wis., carrvalleycheese.com; 800-462-7258)
GRAFTON VILLAGE CHEESE BEAR HILL Firm raw-milk wheel with a brine-washed rind and sweet, fruity flavors. (Grafton, Vt.)
GREEN DIRT FARM WOOLLY RIND This classic lactic cheese ripens as it ages, and is a perfect introduction to sheep's cheese because it packs a milder flavor. (Weston, Mo., 816-386-2156, greendirtfarm.com)
HIDDEN SPRINGS CREAMERY OCOOCH MOUNTAIN Raw-milk, brine-washed, cave-aged wheel with aromas of toffee and buttered toast. (Westby, Wis.)
LANDMARK CREAMERY ANABASQUE Firm wheel with caramel and warm butter aromas. Modeled after the French cheese Ossau-Iraty. (Albany, Wis., 608-345-1282, landmarkcreamery.com)
MEADOWOOD FARMS LEDYARD Soft-ripened Robiola-style cheese wrapped in grape leaves. (Cazenovia, N.Y.)
SHEPHERD'S WAY FARMS BIG WOODS BLUE Rindless blue, aged five to six months. Tender, moist and creamy, with nutty notes. (Nerstrand, Minn., shepherdswayfarms.com; 507-663-9040)
VERMONT SHEPHERD VERANO Aged raw-milk cheese produced with spring and summer milk only. Mellow and nutty. (Westminster, Vt., 802-387-4473, vermontshepherd.com)
Editor's Note: This post was amended on June 15, 2017 after it was brought to our attention that our list did not include Green Dirt Farm.