cheese monger panel: the future of American sheep-milk cheeses
Some of our DSANA members who are producer-processors of farmstead cheeses, describe US sheep-milk cheeses as facing “headwinds” when positioning alongside European imports in the wholesale marketplace. The “headwinds” include consumer and cheese monger perceptions of the American vs European cheeses, seasonal North American cheeses vs the year-round supply of European cheeses, and the landed cost of both groups of cheeses at the retailers’ counters. We have invited some cheese mongers and fromageophiles from the West Coast and Intermountain West, including cheese monger Sarah Zediker of Jackson Whole Grocers, and specialty cheese distributor Greg Hessel of Portland’s Cowbell LLC, to give us their perspective on what North American farmstead cheese producers might do to make their position stronger. We’ll ask them how they mark up or set margins, so that we can know how to set our wholesale prices to reach their target retail price. And we’ll ask them our burning questions, such as “what is the market potential for domestic sheep-milk cheeses?” and “are blended-milk cheeses our future?”. Pictured: Cowbell’s Greg Hessel (top), and Jackson Whole Grocer’s March Madness Wine-and-Cheese pairing brackets.
Farm Tour: Winter Winds Goat Farm & Creamery
The second stop on our Farm Tour day (Saturday November 9th) is Winter Winds Farm in Victor, Idaho, a goat dairy and creamery. Nate and Ginny Ray will give you a tour of operations, discuss the process of setting up a new farm and creamery, and how they market their seasonal goat-milk cheeses. They will also talk to us about their transitional buy-out process of their turn-key operation, with the young prospective buyer who is living and working on the farm with them. Winter Winds Farm is cradled by the Grand Tetons, and rumor has it that the drive to Victor is breath-taking. Pictured: Winter Winds goats at the feeder.
Nutritional demands of a high-producing dairy animal
Butch Cargile is a vet specializing in dairy cow nutrition at Progressive Dairy Solutions, and who is also setting up a sheep dairy in southern Idaho. Butch believes that his performance as his clients’ nutritionist is the “single largest factor in their economic success. In traditional sheep flocks the rule of thumb at lambing has been to withdraw grain for a day, to give the ewe’s gut time to settle and to avoid diarrhea. However, it is starting to look like this rule of thumb is not at all a good idea for our higher-producing dairy sheep. Some producers, whose Lacaune-sired yearlings can produce close to 8 pounds of milk a day at peak, are actually seeing ketosis -- sometimes fatal -- a week or 10 days after lambing. The high-producing dairy animal clearly has unique nutritional needs. Here in North America, most of us don’t know much about the nutritional and metabolic needs of high-producing dairy sheep, but there is certainly a lot of understanding in the cow dairy world. We have asked Butch to speak on the metabolic and nutritional requirements of high-producing and lower-producing dairy cows, and how commercial cow dairies measure and monitor their animals’ metabolic status. This can help us understand the very different metabolism of the high-producing dairy ewe.
Hiring H-2A Agricultural Workers
What is the most challenging aspect of operating a seasonal sheep dairy? Most of us would answer “LABOR!!”: can’t find it, can’t depend on it, doesn’t seem to have a work ethic, etc. This year a Texas agency called Head Honchos LLC helped a US sheep dairy get approved for the US Department of Labor’s H-2A visa program, for “temporary agricultural labor”. As a result, two Mexican fellows arrived on that sheep dairy in early February to work for the season. The farm manager, asked to describe these two guys at mid-season, said “they’re focused, they hustle, and they care.” Overall, the producer reports that “it’s been a complete sea change in our farm’s operation. We have labor stability after years of instability and drama and feeling vulnerable to the whims of our staff.” Todd Miller, owner of Head Honchos, will be speaking at the 2019 Dairy Sheep Symposium at Idaho Falls in November, explaining the requirements of the H-2A program, its costs, and its pros and cons. He will be ready to answer questions about a farm’s application process, and his experiences with farms that have successfully used the program to source reliable labor for many years.