Vermont Shepherd cheese: Outstanding in their fields

Pastures of plenty feed acclaimed sheep dairy

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WESTMINSTER WEST — David and Yesenia Major love sheep, and they love making cheese from the animal's milk.

At this time of year, when Vermont's pastures are growing lusher, the Major Farm's 250 East Friesian crossbred ewes are producing the milk that will be turned into the farm's prize-winning Vermont Shepherd cheese. The farm, off a dead-end dirt road in a corner of Westminster West, is one of a small number of sheep milk-only dairies in the state.

The Majors run an honor-system farm stand at their home in Westminster West, and also have an active presence at the Brattleboro Farmers' Market. They're also selling their cheeses online and to wholesale accounts at vermontshepherd.com.

Keep on the grass

The sheep eat grass, hay and very little grain. But it's the grass that gives the farm and its critically acclaimed cheese a home-field advantage.

David Major, who grew up in Westminster West not far from his current farm, and his wife Yesenia, who grew up in New York City and milked cows at her grandfather's farm in the Dominican Republic, attribute their sheep's health and production to careful management of their pastures and a non-stop plan of rotational grazing.

"We once had our pastures analyzed and there were 64 different species of grasses and flowers," Yesenia Major said, and listed a few: "Dandelion, canary, nettle, chickweed, plantain and clover."

The Majors' farm about 400 acres in Westminster West, and about 300 acres of that is pasture and hay fields. In addition to their home farm on Patch Farm Road, they recently started using the Ranney Farm, a longtime dairy farm a few miles away, to grow hay, and pasture all their yearlings.

The intensive rotational grazing produces lush pasture and hay fields, Yesenia Major said. The farm cuts all its own hay — about 5,000 bales — and put its first hay in the barn on Memorial Day, she said.

The health and fertility of their pastures is evident in late April; while other pastures are still greening up, the Majors' pastures are already thick and green.

Other cheesemakers may use a combination of sheep and cow's milk to make a special cheese, but the Majors, Woodcock Farm in Weston, and Cate Hill Orchard and Sheep Dairy in Greensboro, are the only farms in the state devoted to sheep and their milk, said Tom Bivins, the executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council.

The cheese stands alone

Vermont cheese is big business these days — but in the good sense. The state has become synonymous with artisanal beer and artisanal cheese in the past decade. There are 245 different cheeses made in Vermont by about 60 different farms, Bivins said. And many of the dairies are small operations, which lend themselves to change and innovation, he said.

The Major Farm has been a leader in the artisanal cheese movement in Vermont, Bivins said, and has been making sheep milk cheeses for more than 30 years. Currently the farm produces its signature Verano, which is Spanish for "summer," which is made during the spring and summer months from only sheep's milk. In the late fall, the sheep's milk is mixed with cow's milk from The Putney School's dairy herd to make Invierno, which in Spanish means "winter."

The farm first started raising sheep for meat and wool, and started milking sheep more than 30 years ago, and making cheese, working with Vermont cheese guru Peter Dixon, the couple said. David Major said his parents had always raised Dorsets and he continued with that. But in the late 1980s, the market fell out of the lamb market and the federal government stopped its wool subsidies. It was time to try something new, he said.

The timing couldn't have been better, as the artisanal cheese movement was just starting in Vermont. Major read a book about sheep milk cheese, started milking the family's Dorset herd, and eventually added the dairy-oriented Friesian breed.

David Major said the only cheeses he can compare to Verano are other sheep's milk cheeses made in the Spanish and French Pyrennees mountains. "Manchego is somewhat similar," he said.

Five pounds of sheep's milk goes into every pound of Vermont Shepherd's cheese, he said. Typically, 10 pounds of cow's milk are needed to produce a pound of cheddar.

"There's more protein and fat" in sheep's milk, he said proudly.

The family produces about 40,000 pounds of cheese a year, roughly 20,000 pounds each of the Verano and Invierno.

Never too much cheese

"It's a semi-hard cheese, with a very full flavor, but not a strong flavor," said David Major of Verano. "Kids love it. ... It's not like a sharp cheddar. It's kind of sweet and earthy," he said.

The wintertime Invierno, which is made with some cow's milk, "has a little bit more bite or tang," he said.

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Is there a such a thing as too much cheese on the Majors' farm? No, there is not.

"We eat tons of it," David Major said of the cheeses, which the family enjoy with crackers or bread as well as in recipes. "We don't buy any other cheese."

The Verano doesn't melt well, he said, but that doesn't stop the family from using both cheeses on their pizza or in lasagna (which also gets sheep's milk ricotta). "We never use Parmesan," he said, adding that they use their sheep's milk ricotta in their lasagna.

David Major said Yesenia and a friend who is visiting from Honduras were making papoosas, which are a fried cornmeal dough stuffed with the Invierno cheese. "They're delicious," he said.

The supply of milk that makes that cheese has been plentiful.

This spring, Yesenia said, the farm's 250-300 milking ewes have been producing so much milk — more than 550 pounds a day, or about a quart per ewe — that the dairy is also able to make sheep's milk yogurt, which they are selling at their farm stand. (The farm is not fully licensed to sell yogurt across state lines, David Major said, calling the yogurt "our little secret.")

"It's very rich," Yesenia Major said of the yogurt. David Major added it closely resembles Greek yogurt in texture, because sheep's milk is high in protein and solids.

In late May, the Majors were about to start their second lambing of about 100 ewes, which will help produce milk well into the fall and allow the family to make cheese into November, Yesenia said. As the season progresses, the sheep produce less milk, but it is richer, and it is that milk that goes into Invierno.

Rhythm of the seasons

The farm schedules its year around the herd's natural reproductive cycle — and the cycle of grass. By the time the farm's 250 ewes give birth, and their lambs are starting to be weaned (there has to be milk for the cheese!), the grass is growing.

The Majors' flock usually starts lambing just after Town Meeting in early March, which is good timing since David Major is the chairman of the Westminster School Board and this year has been very involved in the Act 46 merger controversy.

This year, the sheep and the 360 lambs were in separate pastures by mid-April, a good month before many dairy farms, sheep or cheese.

Predators haven't been a problem for five years, Yesenia Major said. The farm has four border collies for herding, and two Great Pyrennes as guard dogs that stay with the flocks every hour of the day.

The milking mothers are given fresh pasture every 12 hours, Yesenia Major said.

Once the lambs, which this year will eventually numbered close to 450, are weaned after about a month, they go into separate pastures from their mothers, and they too follow the rotational grazing model. The farm keeps about 70 lambs for replacements in their herd, and the rest go to other farmers, or for people who raise freezer lambs.

David Major said he started crossing the milk-producing Friesians with other breeds, Tunis and Dorset. The Dorsets on the farm are the offspring of his parent's flock. They are also using a Katahdin ram with a small group of ewes.

Katahdins are hair sheep, and don't require shearing.The sheep live outside in the winter, but they are brought in during rain and sleet storms, he said. In the winter, the herd eats 35 to 40 bales of hay a day.

Milking time at the Major Farm, at 5:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., is an exercise in controlled chaos, as the sheep are brought in from pasture. Each of the ewes eventually makes her way into the 16-stanchion milking parlor where David and his son Alex, or other farm employees, use small two-teat milking machines and gather the milk as the ewes get their twice-daily quarter pound of grain a day.

The grain is automatically distributed at each stanchion, and the ewes know what they're looking for. Then after 10 minutes of milking, after all the ewes' udders are cleaned and disinfected again, and the milk is safely in the cooling tank, another dozen ewes are waiting at the gate and quickly make their way into the individual stanchions. The milking crew quickly jumps into action if a sheep gets out of order, or a milking machine slips off.

The milk is automatically piped off to be cooled, quickly, and is transferred to the cheese house. The cheese house, where the milk, which is higher in protein and solids than cow's and goat's milk, is transformed into cheese, is a short walk away from the barns.

After the cheese is made, it is carefully aged or cured in the farm's cheese cave, which is at the upper end of "our valley," as David Major puts it. It is built into the side of a hill, with separate wings for the two different cheeses, and at any time there are 2,000 wheels of cheese on shelves, aging. The cheese cures for three months before it is ready to sell. The cheese can be aged for up to three years.

Bivins believes there aren't very many sheep dairies in the state because of the demands of caring for the sheep. He said the rich flavor of Vermont Shepherd's cheeses is a direct result of well-managed animals and pasture.

The Majors make cheese five or even six days a week at the height of milk production. "We get Sundays off," Yesenia Major said.

Susan Smallheer is a reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer.


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