Growing A Sheep Dairy & Creamery Business
Colleen Histon says there are three important things to do when establishing a sheep dairying operation—research, research and more research.
But it took “California dreaming” for Colleen and husband Michael to decide on a major career change and make their Shepherd’s Manor Creamery—the first sheep-milking dairy farm in Maryland—a reality.
The couple had discussed the dream of a cow dairy when they first met, long before moving to Mt. Airy, Maryland and the 2.5-acre farmette they had for 21 years.
“Once in Mt. Airy, they raised 4-H market sheep, heifers and cows, and never looked back to that dream,” Colleen says. “We knew it was totally unrealistic and the animals we raised with the children were satisfying enough.”
The sheep dairy idea was introduced to them by a California cheese monger in the summer of 2006.
The couple was at a farmers market in St. Helena, outside Napa Valley where the cheese monger encouraged them to give up meat sheep and raise dairy sheep instead; not because it was easy or profitable, but because there were so few people in the U.S. making sheeps milk products.
He told Michael only one percent of the sheep cheese in the U.S. is produced domestically and there’s a huge market for it.
“It seemed like a much more realistic dairy venture, so we started doing research,” Colleen says. “We’d been in several entrepreneurial endeavors and they had all been extremely competitive. This was the first one that actually wasn’t. There are less than 150 sheep dairy operations within the U.S.”
Their research started by traveling to Long Valley, N.J., to Valley Shepherd Creamery to learn about its operation. They then visited several sheep dairy farms.
The couple also took two weeks of cheese-making classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisanal Cheeses, as well as classes held by the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA).
The Histon’s research produced some important advice—they had to get top-quality dairy sheep. Looking back, it also produced what Colleen says was a no-no: They bought 14 ewes from a farm in Virginia and 36 ewes and a ram from another operation in Wisconsin. Suddenly they had a flock and no farm to run them!
Startup & Expansion (Not Vice Versa!)
“Our mistake was purchasing the sheep before we had the farm or built the dairy,” she says. “We had sheep previously and knew the animal husbandry end of things.”
The “previous experience” was with their children Anne Marie and Matthew, who spent several years in a 4-H program, raising market lambs, breeding sheep and other livestock for show at county fairs.
“We should have waited and bought the sheep last,” Colleen says of the dairy sheep, “but we were concerned about finding dairy sheep, so when the opportunity came, we purchased.”
Colleen says it can be hard to correct mistakes. “I should not have bought the sheep first. I couldn’t correct that unless I wanted to sell them. We just had to continue forward. Otherwise, we tried to do everything in the most sensible way possible.”
They found a 22-acre farm outside New Windsor, Maryland, 45 miles northwest of Baltimore, in October 2009 and began construction of their dairy building in July 2010.
The building, which includes a lab (required to test the milk for antibiotics), was finished in May 2011 and the Histons began milking the same month.
They also received one of only five Maryland permits available to process their raw milk into an end product, rather than having to pasteurize their milk.
Since then they’ve been building demand for their artisan sheep cheeses and other products.
“We’re looking for avenues to build sales,” Colleen says. “I’ve increased the amount of cheese made each year.”
The first year she made 200 wheels, the second year 500 wheels and this year 830 wheels, as well as several hundred pounds of fresh cheese.
“I’m working to sell all of our cheese and have hopes of success, but it’s a lot to sell. As winter comes upon us, markets stop, wineries close for the season and so do the farm stores,” Colleen says.
“I still have some winter clients and one market, but we’ll still have cheese left over to sell, most likely when I start producing in the spring. It’s not too big a concern: Markets then start back up and my aged cheeses have a long shelf life.
“I’m not in the market to engage large chain stores, as then I’d most likely have nothing left to sell to my smaller customers. And chain stores would demand lower prices, leaving me with no profit from all the hard work.”
Meantime, the flock has reached 81 head, made up of East Friesians and Lacaunes. Flock expansion came from breeding their original animals (after adding two rams from two other farms).
“We sell many of the lambs each year and currently will lamb with approximately 70 ewes.”
The Histon plan is to grow “slowly but surely” and eventually have a flock of 100 ewes.
“Our increases are minimal each year, as we have to grow very slowly given the immense need for labor help, which is difficult to afford,” Colleen says. “There are so many jobs to fill on the farm and with Michael still working, it leaves me as milker, sole cheese maker, sole soap maker and sole marketer; it’s tough to fill all these positions.
The sheep, guarded by a llama, are in the fields year-round with access to a barn.
The farm, with some woods but mostly open fields, also is home to foxes, coyotes and a couple of bobcats.
“We have not had any loses due to the protection of our llama and the sheep having protection in the barn,” Colleen says.
The workload is eased by having hired a few interns to do two to three milkings a week during the season.
“We won’t increase the flock very much until we can afford more help,” Colleen says.
Michael divides his time between the farm and working for a forensic engineering firm. Colleen finally left her job of 21 years as a financial administrator for a construction company to become full time on the farm in 2013.
The sheep are milked on a 10-animal stand and average three to four pounds of milk a day, which Colleen uses to produce three raw milk cheeses, a pasteurized milk cheese and sheep milk soap. The cheeses are:
• A raw milk salt-brined feta
• A raw milk Colby-style cheese
• A raw milk Tomme
• An artisan harder cheese with a rind, and
• A semi-soft fresh farmer’s cheese.
Colleen has entered local cheese competitions but hasn’t ventured to the American Cheese Society championship.
“It’s right in the middle of the milking season—when we’re quite busy at the farm,” she says.
Her markets, as befitting an entrepreneur, are varied. She sells at four regional farmers markets, three of them weekly and one monthly. Her cheeses and soaps are also available in wineries, farm stores, orchards, a co-op store and two restaurants—Woodberry Kitchen Restaurant in Baltimore and Zaytinya in Washington DC. “I deliver most of the product myself,” Colleen says.
Internet sales account for a small percentage of her market.
The milking is seasonal, and winters give the couple the opportunity “to breathe, sleep more, rest some, enjoy more, catch up and tend to the simple day-to-day sheep care until lambing begins again in February.”
The Histons don’t have a farm store yet, but do offer sales by appointment.
They added a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in 2013, posting the details on the farm’s website (ShepherdsManorCreamery.com) and delivering to customers at the farmers markets.
Buyers pay $495 for six monthly boxes with two to three pounds of freshly made sheeps milk cheese and at least three bars of soap, worth at least $100 a month.
There’s a $95 cut in price if the buyer picks up the box from the farm each month.
Buyers can make farm visits, where they can participate in the milking, as well as be a guest at the farm’s annual “pot luck shearing party.”
“I thought a CSA would be a helpful way to add income to the farm and get the cheese out to customers,” Colleen says. “The CSA does involve extra work and extra thinking to make it attractive to a consumer to ‘buy’ into.
“I believe if I had enough customers, the CSA could really help fund the farm during the hardest time of the year for costs—the spring—when we buy extra feed and have the least amount of cheese available to sell.”
The downside to CSA, she says, is the extra work to make it attractive and get the packages out to the customers.
“My CSA is not growing at this point,” Colleen says. “I have to rethink marketing it this year and decide whether it is a good idea to continue. I am not sure yet.”
The couple offers farm tours with prices based on numbers ranging from $15 a person for one or two people to $6 a head for groups of 25 or more. Children aged five to10 are half price.
“We average about one group or individual or pair per week,” Colleen says.
The increasing interest in sheep dairy farming in the U.S. is reflected in the growing number of inquiries the Histons get from would-be producers.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to meet people’s requests as the farm requires all our time,” Colleen says.
Would-be sheep dairy farmers should join the DSANA and talk to others involved in the industry, she advises.
“Make sure it’s what you really want to do, because it takes everything you have to make it work in all ways.”
The Histon’s attention to detail and careful planning was recognized when the DSANA’s annual meeting was held nearby and their farm was a featured attraction.
Despite this, Colleen is not yet ready to say the couple has been successful with their sheep dairy operation.
“We are still working on success,” she says. “Perhaps, if anything, I can say we have tenacity. We are driven. We had a lot of experience in a lot of directions and a huge amount of common sense. We work together for the common good and never give up.”