Thursday, November 15, 2007

Milk Sheep Peeps

I've found my people. I had to go all the way to Guelph, Ontario, Canada to do it but it was worth the trip. I found myself in a room full of a hundred or so people and not an eyelid batted when I told people I raised dairy sheep to milk and make cheese. There was no confusion of "cheap" cheese for "sheep" cheese. None of my new acquaintances asked me about my goats. While everyone I met was eager to hear about my sheep and my farm, no one gave me that "my, how very interesting" response or asked me if you could really milk a sheep.

Now don't get me wrong, I find a certain enjoyment in the responses I get when people ask me what I do for a living. It is nice to have extensive material when forced to make small talk with strangers for extended periods of time, such as with the man sitting next to me on the plane. And when you are the only one around doing what your doing, no one has any basis for comparison to judge if you know what you are talking about or if you are any good at it--you are pretty much automatically the best dairy shepherd they know.


So on my first trip away from the farm at the beginning of this month I attended the Great Lake Dairy Sheep Symposium in Guelph. Most of the folks there raised sheep, many of them dairy breeds (the sheep, not the people), and a few dozen of them produced milk or cheese on a commercial basis (the people, not the sheep--althought they did help:P). Because of the location, the Ontario faction was heavily represented in the attendance, but there were also people from Wisconsin, New England, Tennessee, Mexico and even a few west coasters like me. It was inspiring to meet people who are following the same path I am pursuing. The conference also reinforced for me how small and young this industry is in North America. Despite the long traditions of sheep milking in Europe, very little information and expertise, as well as bloodlines, have made the trek over from the Continent. But the folks who have been producing sheep milk here for the last decade or so have found a receptive market with lots of room to grow. I was definitely encouraged that what I am working towards is doable, and that I have done a pretty good job on my homework.



As part of the conference, we visited a couple of sheep dairy farms and a cheesemaking facility, and I got to see some types of sheep that were new to me. At one of the farms, Todd Sheep Company, they milk East Freisian, which I am familiar with, but they had black ones, too, which was pretty cool. At the other farm, Best Baa Dairy, they milk British Milk Sheep which is, obviously, a breed from England that came from a cross of Freisians and a few other breeds a while back. They look like little dainty Freisians and seemed pretty mellow.





The annual meeting for the Dairy Sheep Association of North America was also held during the symposium. Somehow, I blinked and I ended up being elected to the Board of Directors--I think because I had a big mouth and was easily identifiable as that girl from California. I guess that means I have to see this sheep dairy thing through as it might be a little awkward to be on the board if I decide to up and sell my sheep and move to NYC to pursue my dream of being a beat poet or something. Well, I've already gotten my first assignment as an active member of DSANA. There was discussion of having regional groups for networking and figuring out who else is out there. Being the only one in the room from this part of the country I volunteered to be the contact person for the West Coast region. So, if you are located on the Pacific Coast and are raising dairy sheep give me a holler. Generally it would be good to know how many sheep are out there and what breeds, it would also be interesting to know who is selling milk and cheese commercially, to what type of
markets. This might facilitate breeding exchanges, technical assistance, marketing, and general sense of comraderie. I know I was really encouraged to talk to other folks doing what I am trying to do. You can email me at rebeccajaneking@gmail.com
to be included.

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