Three years ago Missy and Joe Adiego of Petaluma, Calif. had a vision: To build a computerized Grade A sheep milking parlor that accurately measured milk production each milking.
“We purchased our first batch of East Friesian milk sheep, known for their high quality milk production, from Nebraska before we had the land,” Missy said. “We didn’t have many options on ranches to lease long term, so we began the massive renovation on a dilapidated cow dairy.” This undertaking is even more ambitious because Missy admits she had only seen sheep in the fields, much less visiting any dairy operation.
A professional rider in East and West Coast
hunter⁄jumper competitions, Missy Adiego
suddenly became chief shepherdess.
“I grew up in upstate New York and began riding horses when I was nine years old,” she said. “My family visited California one summer 15 years ago and we decided to stay. I continued to ride competitively on the hunter⁄jumper circuit on the East and West coasts and turned professional in 2003.”
All that changed one night when a mutual friend introduced her to her future husband at a local country dance hall. The couple married seven years ago.
Joe admits he was always around sheep growing up in the 4–H and did some occasional work with some local relatives who were commercial sheep producers. His dad was in the dairy equipment business but he never had a sheep milk dairy operation in his future.
He said he just “fell into it.”
“I was over at Bellwether Farms near Petaluma and the owner asked if I would be interested in building a milking barn. They had a plan to begin sourcing fresh sheep milk instead of frozen.”
Adiego and his father built cow barns and were familiar with the dairy industry.
So, Joe looked at the finances and decided to go for it. And Haverton Hill became more than a day dream.
First of all, the ramshackle ranch had to be completely restored along with all the fences on the 378 acres.
“I think we have renovated and cleaned every inch of this ranch down to the water troughs and feeders,” Missy said. “We had to retrofit every barn, along with the milking parlor to bring the ranch back to a Grade A facility. Every family member and friend, along with a great work team we have in place, worked endless hours on new projects every day to make this a farm to be proud of.”
Tony and Jolene Adiego partnered with Joe and Missy to start the dairy. The name “Haverton” is a combination of the names of the couple’s two daughters, Hadley Leighton, and Avery and the Adiegos added “Hill.”
Sheep Pre–Purchase Hastens Setup Operations
“I told Missy I had already purchased 600 sheep and that was before we leased the ranch,” Joe said. “She loved the idea. She wanted me to spend more time around the family and full–time agriculture gave me that opportunity.”
He had a plan of action and started calling attendees at the annual DSANA Dairy Sheep Symposium to find out who had sheep farms. Adiego found sheep in Idaho, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
He and his father moved the newly purchased sheep onto a friend’s commercial land, bred them and a year and a half later the operation was ready.
“I was in the equipment business so I researched dairy parlors and found most were coming from overseas,” he said. “That was not acceptable so I built it myself.”
Building and designing a state–of–the–art parlor—the only such operation in the nation, according to Adiego–took shape fast; it was ready in five months.
The milking parlor is now sold through GEA Westfalia. Joe and his father Tony installed the facility along with all the milking equipment. The milk meters together with the RFID ear tag identification system allow each animal to be identified electronically with either a wand or as they enter the milk parlor. Each tag number scans and corresponds with the milk meter. That also generates their daily milk production report to a computer. (Each ewe averages three to four pounds of milk a day.)
Joe Adiego: “We just fell into it.”
“This complex system allows us to know what each milk ewe is producing every day,” Missy said. “That information generates to our computer program, with which we’re then able to generate reports on feed, offspring, milk production, lactation, etc.”
Another software program selects the genetic capability of the flock–what rams to keep to improve milk quality and what offspring should stay on the place.
(According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, there are 12 sheep dairy farms on record–six in Sonoma County, two in San Luis Obispo County and one each in Santa Cruz, Marin, Madera and Fresno counties). In retrospect, the Adiegos say their biggest challenge was finding a ranch to lease that would allow them to immediately begin their project, to retrofit things needed to operate a sheep dairy and a place to grow to the capacity that they wanted.
Everyone takes part in farm chores.
They were pleasantly surprised and felt quite fortunate to ease smoothly through California’s restrictions. “We were fortunate as far as restrictions. My father–in–law’s business works on all types of farms from equipment to regulations to inspections,” Missy said. “Although all the work seemed overwhelming–converting an old cow dairy and bringing it back to a working ranch as a sheep dairy–they made the process look easy because they do this type of work daily. They were well versed on dairy regulations and what materials can be used and what needed to be done before inspection.”
“We’ve renovated and cleaned every inch of this ranch… had to retrofit every barn.”
“Never a dull moment.”
Joe added some tips for those thinking of moving into a sheep dairy operation:
“Every day is different when you live on a farm,” he said. “This is not a normal 8 to 5 job. It’s a complete lifestyle, holidays and all.
“Moreover, it is not as easy as it looks, not as cheap as we thought, but there is never a dull moment.
“You have to be passionate about what you do because it’s your way of life and you have to love every moment.
“Most of all you have to be proud of your animals and farm to make the whole thing successful.”
Haverton Hill sells its sheep milk to Bellwether Farms, an artisan sheep dairy and cheese operation in nearby Sonoma County. Bellwether transports the milk from Haverton Hill three times a week.
Liam Callahan, Bellwether Farms owner and cheesemaker, had some words of praise for the Adiegos. “I think Haverton Hill is exciting in two ways,” he said. “First, Joe and his family are young and decided to get into the sheep dairy industry because of the opportunity rather than transition into sheep dairying to ‘save the farm.’ This will become more common once superior bloodlines become available.
“Secondly, we are excited to have a neighbor able to supply us sheep milk after 22 years of relative isolation.”