This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the 17th Annual Dairy Sheep Symposium. For the first time ever the Symposium was held on the West Coast, in
(lucky us!) There were easily
over a hundred people at the conference and plenty who couldn't make the trip…it
is surprising to see how many people are interested in this sheep
milking/cheese making niche! Petaluma, California
There were two days of conference-like activity, with various speakers and discussions ranging from mobile milking parlors, to artificial insemination of dairy sheep, to cheese making and marketing information, to results of scientific research projects related to dairy sheep. Included was a cheese tasting, where many attendees brought their wares to sample, as well as a banquet featuring local lamb.
|An ewe being inseminated in the "cradle of love"|
The symposium also included a day of touring three local sheep dairies; Marin and Sonoma counties have a “Cheese Trail” and the largest (growing) concentration of artisan cheese makers in California. We first visited Bellwether Farm and Artisan Creamery, which produces several sheep milk cheeses, sheep milk yogurt and cow’s milk cheese.
|Bellwether's ewe lambs|
|Bellwether's cheese aging room|
|Bellwether's milking parlor - this is where milk comes from!|
We then stopped by Haverton Hill, where they have high tech electronic ear tags for all the sheep that sync to electronic milking equipment; all the milking stats for each sheep is sent directly to a computer for ease of tracking and decision making.
The last farm we visited was Weirauch Creamery, one of the newest in the area. The owners have converted an old portable classroom into their creamery and are in the process of converting another into their milking parlor.
|Their small pasteurizer and cheese vat|
To be honest, the more I heard and saw at this symposium, the more overwhelmed I felt. Sheep dairying and cheese making is far from an easy or cheap profession to get into. It seems to me that there are three way’s a person gets into it – by inheriting a working dairy, by having a large amount of off farm income to dump into starting a dairy, or - for those with neither of those options - by going into substantial debt to follow an internal passion.
Everywhere I look, small farmers face massive challenges to start and sustain their farms. I wonder why is farming on a small scale is so unrealistic? Perhaps we are not placing enough value on what we eat. Agriculture should be what sustains our communities and creates health for us and our environment. Small, local farms are an incredibly important piece of our "green" future and deserve our support.