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Reproduced with permission - words and photos by Ayleen Stellhorn.

NEW WINDSOR, Md. After a year of seeking licenses and perfecting cheese recipes, Maryland’s first sheep dairy is set to offer its product to the public in early summer.

Shepherds Manor Creamery, owned and operated by Colleen and Michael Histon, received its permit to produce raw milk farmstead cheese from Maryland’s Center for Milk Control on Aug. 1 and is taking final steps to become a Grade A dairy.

On Nov. 3, the Histons received the 2011 Agribusiness Award from Carroll County’s Department of Economic Development.

"It’s been a wacky journey," Michael said.

Colleen and Michael started their search for what Michael calls "a cool joint midlife crisis" in 2008. They wanted something to support their foodie side, something agricultural and something social. An impromptu taste-testing session and the ensuing conversation with a cheese monger in California convinced the couple that the sheep dairy business fit the bill.

The couple quickly found that the idea of a sheep dairy is something of an eyebrow-raiser when they tell people about their venture, but that reaction hasn’t dimmed their outlook on the business prospects of milking sheep.

"Ninety-nine percent of sheep cheese consumed in the United States is made overseas Spain, France, Italy and shipped here," Michael said. "We’re on the cutting edge of doing something radical yet positive."

Over the following year, Colleen and Michael put together a business plan and visited nearly 30 farms from Wisconsin to New York to Tennessee in search of a location for their ideal dairy.

"We borrowed ideas everywhere we went and made them apply to us," Michael said. "Some were too big or not suited to our operation.

But we met a lot of good honestly helpful people along the way."

While they were still raising a handful of meat sheep and 4-H animals on 2½ acres in Mount Airy, Md., and looking at potential farms, Michael and Colleen purchased 20 dairy sheep in Virginia and 24 more in Wisconsin.

A year later, in October 2009, they purchased the 22-acre farm in New Windsor just 10 miles from their home and named it Shepherds Manor Creamery to reflect their home (a manor) and themselves (two shepherds).

In January 2010, they moved in, added fences, fixed the bank barn, made a manure pit, and built a 100-by-35-foot dairy to house the cheese processing equipment and a 100-by-35-foot open barn to shelter the sheep. It wasn’t until 2010 that they sold their Mount Airy property.

"We picked the worst time to sell a house. We both have modest salaries. If you told me back in 2008 that we’d even be here today, I wouldn’t have believed it," Colleen said. "Everything we’ve done, we’ve done the hard way."

The Histons currently have 56 dairy sheep and four rams. Most are crossbred Lacaune and East Friesian. During the five-month lactation period from March to July, they milk 10 sheep at a time in bays with head gates and automatic feeders.

This past year they averaged 1½ pounds of milk per sheep once a day and 2 pounds when they milked twice a day. Colleen expects they will be averaging 3 pounds this spring.

Currently the Histons are both balancing full-time jobs while they grow their business. Michael works for a forensic engineering firm in Alexandria, Va.; Colleen is a financial administrator for Highway and Safety Services in Gaithersburg.

On the farm, the division of labor is dictated by sanitation rules: Colleen makes cheese in the evenings while Michael takes care of the sheep. Additional chores are listed on a his-and-her to-do list in the house.

"Sanitation is key when you’re doing a farmstead cheese operation," she said.

Over the past year, Colleen has perfected four cheese recipes: a feta, a tomme, a chevre and a Colby.

The process takes a lot of experimentation because a number of factors can affect the flavor of the cheese everything from the pH of the grass the sheep eat to subtle changes in the recipe.

"Raw milk cheese tastes better," Michael said, comparing it to mass-produced cheese from pasteurized milk. "It’s like a blank canvas to an artist."

Most of the machinery Colleen uses to process the milk and make the cheese is previously owned, and the newest piece in the bulk tank room dates to 1974. Colleen applied for small grants to fund some of the purchases, including a new pasteurizer for yogurt, which they hope to start producing in the future.

They also stretched their budget by doing a lot of the construction work on the dairy themselves. The couple laid the elements for heating the floor in a self-described "husband and wife bonding experience," Michael constructed the rooms, and they built a retaining wall from blocks that were sold as seconds because the coloration was incorrect.

"The sheep don’t mind that they’re mismatched," Michael said.

Because running a sheep dairy and making cheese is a high energy-use business, the Histons also incorporated energy-saving materials into the building. Skylights and a high-pitched roof allow light and promote airflow in the sheltered area, and spray foam in the walls and ceiling help to insulate the cheese-making rooms. They plan to add solar panels and a boiler that runs on used motor oil in the future.

"Our hope is to go beyond making cheese and owning livestock," Michael said. "We also hope to be mentors, to give back to others, like the people who shared information with us."

Photos by Ayleen Stellhorn

Shepherds Manor Creamery has 50 milking sheep and four rams. Most are a cross between Lacaune and East Friesian.

Left: From left, feta cheese, salt brined for 60 days; tomme, aged on a shelf for 60 days with a washed rind and Colby, shrink-wrapped and aged on a shelf for 60 days.

Cheese is packed into molds and pressed from six to 24 hours, depending on the recipe, in this 30-mold-capacity cheese press.

Colleen Histon also produces about a dozen different scented soaps from sheep’s milk that can’t be used for cheesemaking.


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