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New Windsor farmers start state's 1st sheep dairy

Monday - 9/10/2012, 1:50pm  ET

CARRIE ANN KNAUE
Carroll County Times

NEW WINDSOR, Md. - Tucked on the outskirts of New Windsor, Shepherds Manor Creamery is the first sheep dairy in Maryland, making artisan cheeses and delicate soaps from their sheep's milk, which they sell at special events such as The Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster Sept. 15 and 16.

Ten years ago, owners Colleen and Michael Histon couldn't have guessed that the farm and cheese making business would be in their future. When their children were in 4-H, it was normal to have a few market lambs, of the meat variety, or a dairy heifer in their 2.5-acre back yard in Mount Airy. Once the kids got older and moved on, Colleen continued to raise a few lambs as a personal source of meat, and even got into showing them at the local fairs.

But a trip to Napa Valley, Calif., in 2004 got the Histons thinking about raising sheep in a different way. They were at a farmers market with Colleen's sister when a cheese monger got Michael's attention and started telling him about how easy and profitable it was to make cheese from sheep's milk.

The man told Michael that only 1 percent of the sheep cheese in the United States comes from the United States and there is a huge market for it.

Michael might have thought about it for a while, but Colleen said she doesn't remember him saying anything about it to her at that time. But two years later, they returned to visit Colleen's sister, went to the same farmers market, and the same cheese vendor recognized Michael and started talking to them again.

This time they tried six of his cheeses and really listened to what he had to say, and when they went home from the trip, they decided to research it for themselves. They found that there were a lot of great benefits and characteristics of sheep's milk.

"It's thicker, it's creamier, it has a higher fat content and protein content," Colleen said of sheep's milk compared to cows' milk.

If you have lactose intolerance issues, you can still eat or drink sheep's milk or goats' milk products, she said. But goats' milk is a little gamier, and sheep's milk has a taste closer to cows' milk.

And while cows' milk and goats' milk can't be frozen, sheep's milk can because its cell structure is different, she said, and it won't break down when frozen. On the other hand, sheep's milk can't be separated into milk and cream. But the ability to freeze it means that you can save your milk and process it into cheese at a later time, she said, and that sheep dairies can freeze their milk and sell it to other processors.

In 2008, they were ready to take steps toward running a sheep dairy. They contacted the largest sheep dairy in America, Valley Shepherd Creamery in New Jersey, and went to visit, spending a whole day there, learning about their operation.

They met a woman from Virginia at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival who was making and selling sheep cheese, and arranged a deal to buy 14 ewes from her. Wanting to expand their herd, they found a farmer in Wisconsin who could sell them more ewes at a much cheaper price, so on Labor Day weekend 2008, they drove out there and picked out 36 ewes and a ram.

Now with more than 50 sheep, they knew their backyard was not going to suffice. The real estate market was down, and they decided to start looking for land because they would need more of it to run an actual sheep dairy. They had to use some temporary solutions at first, but eventually found and settled on their 22- acre farm on Slingluff Road just outside the town of New Windsor.

They moved in 2010 and became the first sheep dairy in Maryland. They also received one of only five permits available in the state to process their raw milk into an end product rather than having to pasteurize their milk.

Due to reproduction of the herd, the Histons now have 50 ewes. During their milk production season, generally from April through September, Colleen and Michael both get up at 3 a.m. to do the morning milking, then leave for their jobs in the Washington, D.C., area. For the afternoon milking, Michael gets help from some high school students, and Colleen uses that time to work on the cheese.

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