MANY A SLIP ‘TWIXT’ CUP AND SHEEP DIP

At Shepherd’s Way Farms, we believe there is a way to live that combines hard work, creativity, respect for the land and animals, and a focus on family and friends. We believe the small family-based farm still has a place in our society. Everything we do, everything we make, is in pursuit of this goal. –Steven Read & Jodi Ohlsen Read

“Sheep’s Milk Cheeses in U.S. Earn Ribbons but Little Profit”

When I see P’tit Basque for $13.99 a pound, it’s like getting kicked in the gut,” said Seana Doughty, the proprietor of Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, Calif. “That’s how much it costs me to make Fat Bottom Girl,” her signature sheep cheese, which typically retails for $38 to $40 a pound.

Seated with hundreds of colleagues at the American Cheese Society awards ceremony in Des Moines this past July, Rebecca Williams heard her farm’s name announced not once but twice, for its acclaimed sheep’s milk cheeses.

“We make good cheese,” Ms. Williams said to herself as she approached the stage to collect the second-place prize for Peekville Tomme, the farm’s aged wheel. Her ash-ripened Condor’s Ruin had just taken a blue ribbon in another category.

Those two ribbons are probably her last. In October, cheese production ceased at Many Fold Farm, the six-year-old Georgia sheep dairy that Ms. Williams operates with her husband, Ross.

“It’s really hard to get such great recognition for your work, have people banging on your door, and it’s not enough to make ends meet,” she said.

Tripped up by the tricky economics of sheep dairying, the Williamses are among several disillusioned dreamers who hoped to succeed with American sheep cheese, a niche that did not exist 30 years ago. There were 167 dairy sheep farms in the US in 2010 with an estimated 25,000 milking ewes.

In contrast, the dairy goat industry has continued steady growth since the 1980s. Goat milk and soft goat cheese, commonly known as chevre, is available in most supermarkets today. As of 2013, 360,000 head of dairy goats were counted in the United States. More than 30,000 farms in the country raise milk goats. In addition to a variety of different cheeses, goat milk is used to make yogurt and even ice cream. It often serves as feed for other animals.

A Greek guy tried our raw goat’s milk feta at the Houston’s Farmers’ Market and exclaimed that it was the best feta he had had since he left the ‘motherland.’ I thanked him for the compliment but credited the goats for their Vegan (Wharton County alfalfa) diet and that our feta was made with raw milk therefore the taste had not been cooked away through pasteurization. I went on blathering about real Greeks only consume sheep’s milk feta, maybe goat’s milk in a pinch but never ever feta made from cow’s milk. Why? It’s the 4 – 6 – 9 principle. The fat content four percent for the cow, six for the goat and a whopping nine percent for sheep. Thus, our $5.00/8oz price was cheap compared to $1.00/8oz’s at Kroger.

“A distributor can import manchego for maybe a third of what it costs us to produce,” said Laurel Kieffer, a Wisconsin sheep farmer and the president of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America.

I became the cheese-maker in the family owned business known as Earth Mother Farms because Shelby fired her niece’s boyfriend who took the previous cheese-maker with him. Any task outside of milking 50 goats twice a day, seven days a week was obvious to the casual observer. However, after taking in all our operating and fixed costs that 8oz container ( a gallon of milk makes a pound of cheese) of feta cost $2.77/8oz to produce.

As the retired cheese-maker, I understand the dairy sheepherder’s “show me the money” dilemma. Seana Doughty, the proprietor of Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, Calif. “When I see P’tit Basque for $13.99 a pound, it’s like getting kicked in the gut,” her signature sheep cheese, which typically retails for $38 to $40 a pound.

As we say in every Texas Quick Stop at lunchtime:

“this family farming shit, don’t pencil out.”

Small family farms (less than $350,000 in GCFI) account for 90 percent of all U.S. farms. Large-scale family farms ($1 million or more in GCFI) account for about 3 percent of farms but 55 percent of the value of production.  Slightly less than half of U.S. farms are very small, with annual gross cash farm income under $10,000; the households operating these farms typically rely on off-farm sources for the majority of their household income.

The mayor of our 400 peep rural community visited us in 2006 to say that our gross revenue of $120,000 made the Anala Inc. number one business enterprise in the ‘hood.’ It was also greater than the combined loot we had received since our beginning in 1998. I further suggested we could double our gross if she and her friends would purchase our raw goat’s milk kefir for only $45.00/gal, which cost us the same $5.53/gal as the chevre.

“All-right smart ass show me the money.”

How many ‘Cheeserias’ like this one in Barcelona have you seen anywhere outside of NYC or San Fran? The cheese was to expensive but a liter of kefir was only E4.00. Just as a ‘Dollar’ store can thrive a block away from Wal-Mart or Starbucks can charge you twice as much for coffee, specialty retail for small farm produce currently survives at farmers’ markets.

As a native Cincinnatian my dairy hero was Carl Lindner, who dropped out of high school to run his father’s United Dairy Farmers store in Norwood all the way to #167 on Forbes billionaire list. Living for the last two years in the 99% Muslim country of Turkey I became epiphanied with the Bacon shops in Spain and France – call them prosciuttorias to justify the higher prices.

Agriculture and Retailing are classified as Fragmented Industries where nobody even Wal-Mart or the biggest pig farmer Smithfield Foods has more than 1% of the business. According to Harvard’s Michael Porter, the only way to see the money is through DIFFERENTIATION and there are two paths to riches 1) Low Cost Producer ala Wal-Mart or 2) Uniqueness like Starbucks.

There were 65 million sheep in 1937 America after Nylon, Rayon and Polyester 6.5 million remain. The US imports 25-40% of the sheep and goats we eat. A goat dairy vendor five booths away was selling pasteurized goat’s milk and cheese for almost as much as Earth Mother Farms because fresh milk from a goat is unique. Sheep milk is virtual non-existent. California is the only state that never regulated mandatory pasteurization – you can buy a gallon of raw cow’s milk for $12 at Whole Foods or Safeway. Coast to coast raw cheese must be aged at least sixty days
It took Seana Doughty’s, Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, Calif., five months, a cheese cave, a real creamery and a lot of money invested to age-out 10 pound sheep’s milk cheese wheels for $39.00 only to be thrown under her ewes by the $13.99 a pound retail price.  Reminds me of the time I bought 76 goats at 80 cents a pound and sold them over two months at 70 cents a pound. That was the same year Anala Inc. had gross revenues of $500.00. The lesson learned is it is super difficult to differentiate a commodity like pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, goats and dairy because why pay four or five times the industrialized agriculture price? Why should I pay $1.00 for an organic apple when I can get four shiny red delicious ones at Appletree for the same dollar?

The chart above illustrates the importance of family farms to national GDP and employment. The Netherlands has the most balanced Urban/Rural population economy in the world. Together with France, Spain and Germany the European family farms contribute a greater percentage of GDP per employee than the 3% of industrial farms in the US. Number one reason, like California they never outlawed the sale of domestic raw dairy. Secondly, France has over 1,000 kinds of goat cheese.  The quality and taste of raw dairy as in wine is determined by the soil, climate, vineyard tender and winemaker.

The United States for more than 100 years has collected the milk from individual farmers, mixed it all together at the dairy plant, cooked (UHT) it,  homogenized it, denatured it, added stuff back in it, then put it in liter size cartons where it retains its tastelessness for six months without refrigeration.

How Bob and Darlene Saved the Stryk Family Farm

The Stryks were each raised on their respective family’s dairy farms. Farming is a passion for them. But, with farming comes hardships. It’s the struggles brought on by numerous droughts that proved to be their proverbial silver lining.

It was the drought of 1996 when they were forced to cull their 170 head milking herd down to 20 cows. They both had to take jobs in town to save their farm.

“At that point, we could have sold all the livestock, our land, and bought a house in town. But we felt we could sell the milk off the 20 cows and make the mortgage payment. In 1999, when our daughter Bryn arrived, we knew we had made the right decision to stay on the farm,” says Bob.

The drought of 96 drove it home to the Stryks that to survive another one, they needed a niche market. That same year they created Strykly Texas Cheese, a retail custom cut, shaped, and waxed cheese business.

The dairy’s conversion from a commercial milking operation to a raw-for-retail milk operation began in earnest during the drought of 2006 (I met the Stryk’s as fellow vendors at the Houston Farmers’ Market). The Stryks had found a new niche market, one that would carry their now 60-head Jersey cow dairy successfully through the historic drought of 2011.

However, they weren’t immune to the hard decisions that drought brought to farmers and ranchers. The dry, moisture starved pastures where they grazed their 35-head beef cattle herd were no longer producing enough forage. The Stryks had been providing the herd supplemental feed for months. In February, they decided they could no longer justify the costs and made the tough decision to sell the beef cattle herd. Ironically, a couple weeks later, the needed rains began to fall. They rolled the dice on Mother Nature and lost that roll.

 TWO, FOUR, SIX, EIGHT, DIFFERENTIATE

Desert Farms is a California-based company that uses a network of small farms across the country to provide raw camel milk in each region. Its products, both raw and pasteurized, are for sale in bulk on its website and on Amazon. Erewhon carries single pints of frozen raw camel’s milk for $25.

There you have it, until the FEDS make raw dairy legal in all fifty states, eliminate all agricultural subsidies, make organic farming mandatory and outlaw factory farms you are on your own.

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