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