This weekend we headed up to Meadowood Farms for their annual Lambing Day celebration! Check out some gratuitously cute pictures of lambs and click here to read more about Meadowood Farms, sheep cheese, and Lambing Day.
Meadowood Farms is located in Cazenovia, New York, a historic upstate hamlet just outside of Syracuse. Established in 1911, it was said of the original farm owners, the Walter Chard family, that “They therefore chose a site in the midst of a fine country and commanding a superb view of the full length of Cazenovia lake, a site in the center of a farm which they hope in time to make a model of cultivation and thrift.” The original farm was home to a wide variety of agricultural enterprises including an apple orchard, a flock of 4,000 chickens, white Cheshire pigs, and a herd of 50 milking Holsteins. The farm was a thriving business up through the 1950’s, when burgeoning big ag industry and science began to erode the sustainability of small and mid-sized farms. Over the decades the farm atrophied, and by the 1980’s it was all but derelict – the town even considered tearing down the historic Chard mansion.
The current owners, Marc Schappell and Tom Anderson, stumbled across Meadowood Farms in 1995 while visiting Cazenovia for a wedding. They fell head over heels for the farm and have spent the last 20 years restoring the farm lands and farm buildings to their original glory. Meadowood Farms now encompasses over 200 acres and is home to a flock of pure bred East Fresian sheep used to make their award-winning lineup of cheese, and Belted Galloway cattle – used both for showing at agricultural fairs as well as for beef.
Every spring Meadowood Farms hosts a Lambing Day celebration – kicking off the spring and the start of the sheep cheese making season. Sheep are seasonal in their milk production – they give milk for a 5-6 month period after their lambs are born in the late winter/early spring. Veronica Pedraza, the head cheesemaker at Meadowood Farms, has been making cheese for two weeks this season, and in another 2-3 weeks, we’ll have the distinct pleasure of bringing you those young, fresh sheeps’ milk cheeses! The first cheeses of the season are Strawbridge – a creamy bloomy rinded cheese that tastes of hazelnuts, cultured cream, and tangy yogurt, and Ledyard – a leaf-wrapped sheeps’ milk cheese that is yeasty, barnyardy, and honeyed in flavor. Look out for these two behind the counter at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the coming weeks – we can’t wait to dig in to them ourselves!
Veronica Pedraza, head cheesemaker at Meadowood Farms, dreamed of making sheep cheese for years before finding the right farm for her. She honed her skills making cows’ milk cheese at Sweetgrass Dairy in Georgia and at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, two of the country’s top cheese producers. She has quickly created a lineup of delicious sheeps’ milk, mixed milk, and cows’ milk cheeses named after local people and places in Cazenovia. Driving around over the weekend we saw cheese names everywhere we looked – Rippleton Road, Ledyard Street, Lorenzo, Cazenovia’s historic mansion, and Juvindale Farm – the local dairy that Veronica buys her cows’ milk from. But sheeps’ milk cheese is her true passion – the milk is higher in fat than cow or goats’ milk, and has a unique, nutty, sweet and slightly wooly flavor that imparts wonderful flavor notes to the finished cheese.
Now back to the sheep – farmer and flock manager Bee Tolman is one of the pre-eminent experts on sheep and sheep dairying in the US. Unlike the cow dairying industry, in which Bee says there is ‘little to nothing new to discover’, the sheep dairying business is a veritable black hole of information in comparison. Sheep dairying is very common in Europe, but the secrets to success (including the genetics for the animals themselves) are locked in regions like the Pyrenees in France, the arid planes of Thanks to farmers like Bee, La Mancha in Spain, and in various regions of Italy. However, Bee has made it her life’s work to educate herself, chipping away at the secrets and paving her own way to a phenomenal operation at Meadowood Farms.
This year the farm is producing more milk than ever thanks to an innovative system of leaving the ewes and lambs together for 12 hours at a time and then separating them for 12 hours. This allows the lambs to be with their mothers and nurse, and also allows the ewes to produce the maximum amount of milk. Sheep reach their peak of milk production just 30 days after giving birth, so this period of early spring is crucial to the success of the cheese making side of the business. The spring milk is also the richest at this time of year, making for some super tasty cheese.
The sheep are grazed all summer long – another tremendous effort for Bee and her farm team. Talking about the farm, she said that milking sheep was already tough enough without adding the ‘dark art’ of rotational grazing. It’s basically a big grass gambling operation – Bee goes out and surveys the farm’s ample pasture and decides which patches she thinks will be ready to produce the best grass three weeks out. She then mows the fields and prays, crosses her fingers and toes, and invokes any other superstition available to her to ensure that there’s not a drought, not too much rain, and that in three weeks time the grass is young, tender, and appetizing for the sheep. Contrary to popular belief, sheep (and all other grazers) won’t eat just any grass, they like the softer, younger shoots. Once it grows above a certain height, it becomes too fibrous and woody, no longer appealing to them. Many of our dairy farmers half joke that they are actually grass farmers – which is not a stretch when you consider how important the animals’ diet is to the finished product!
So when the season’s first sheeps’ milk cheeses from Meadowood Farms arrive a few weeks from now – one bite will tell you all you need to know about the goodness of the farm. Till then, stay tuned and ready to savor!