2020 - Volume #44, Issue #6, Page #17[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
Multi-Species Dairy Makes A Lot Of Cheese
“We make 40 different cheeses and a dozen yogurts,” says Eran Wajswol, Valley Shepherd Creamery.
He and his wife Debra Van Sickle met in engineering school, and shared a love for farming. An initial hobby farm with a small beef herd led to a 120-acre farm in Long Valley, Morris, County, N.J. and a herd of Rambouillet sheep. Quickly discovering that a small flock of meat and wool-producing sheep was not economically viable, they looked for an alternative.
Through years of traveling around Europe, they had fallen in love with Old-World style sheep cheese. They developed a business plan for a sustainable, vertically integrated, Pyrenees style, cave-aged cheese dairy. They replaced the Rambouillet with European East Friesian and Lacaune dairy sheep. They added a mixed goat herd, mainly Alpine and Nubian dairy goats, as well as cows. They also keep a herd of Red Wattle hogs that consume whey from the cheese operation and later are marketed as European-style, dry cured sausage.
While the cheesemaking is Old-World style, the milking operation is modern. Today they operate the only carousel milking parlor for sheep and goats in the U.S. They can milk 600 head an hour. Cows are milked off site.
“We started 23 years ago,” says Wajswol. “We took time to develop the recipes, but we knew what we wanted to do and where we were going with it.”
Part of the plan involved digging a cave out of the hillside where they could age cheese. It features 4 climate-controlled, aging rooms for hard cheeses, stinky washed rind cheese, blue cheese, and soft ripened cheese. Cheeses are aged from 2 months to 2 years.
Their vertically integrated production facility takes milk from the animal to the market. While Wajswol considers the annual lamb production a give-away, even they become part of the process. Rennet used in the cheesemaking process is harvested from their stomachs.
“We have 2 stores in New Jersey and 1 in New York City,” says Wajswol. “We sell to retailers, wholesalers and at 14 farmers markets every week, mostly in New York City.”
Wajswol notes the farmers markets and direct sales were vital this past year, as sales to restaurants disappeared. “The amount of specialty cheese baskets that were ordered was mind-boggling in the early days,” says Wajswol. “Lately farmers markets have been our biggest market. It’s one way people feel they can get out of the house.”
Wajswol cites creating multiple markets for product as one of the keys to setting up a business based on creating product. Marketing is also the biggest challenge.
“We had to find markets that wanted locally made, artisanal cheese in volume,” he says. “A single batch of cheese is 30 wheels.”
He questions whether anyone could reproduce what he and his wife created, but the rules they followed still make sense.
“Given the money it would cost in both up-front and capital improvements, I don’t think something like Valley Shepherd would happen today,” he says. “Whatever you do, figure out the product before you spend any money. Figure out what the market will absorb. Figure out the price you can sell it for and the cost of production.”
In the case of dairy products, he advises working backwards - this much product at this price in this volume requires this much milk at this much yield per animal.
Another key factor is labor. “We can’t physically do all the work ourselves,” he says. “Maintaining the staffing level needed for a vertically integrated business is a challenge. You have to have a lot of good people.”
Valley Shepherd does more than just sell cheese; it also sells itself. The original plan included making the farm a family-friendly destination.
The farm hosts tours from spring to fall, as well as wine and cheese tastings and cheesemaking classes ($169). Class attendees make a 2-lb. wheel of cheese that is aged in the farm’s cave for 90 days before being picked up or shipped to the maker.
The farm store (online and brick and mortar) offers cheese by the pound, by the plate, and by the basket, as well as a wide array of other related products. Gift baskets and monthly shipments are also available.
Aside from the pandemic, everything has developed according to plan. “Today you can find our cheese as far away as California, but most of it is sold on the East Coast,” says Wajswol. “There is no need to grow nationally when you can sell it all regionally.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Valley Shepherd Creamery, 50 Fairmount Rd., Long Valley, N.J. 07853 (ph 908 876-3200; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.valleyshepherd.com).
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