In the world of American cheesemaking, sheep milk is a rarity. There are an estimated 200 commercial sheep dairies across the nation, and barring a few industrial enterprises, most of them are small operations with a couple hundred ewes—if that many. Sheep produce a lot less milk than cows, in a shorter season, so their milk comes at a significantly higher cost. Bundle that fact with a niche consumer market and few government assistance programs, and you have a business that few small farms can afford.
And yet! Like goats, sheep go easier on the land than cows. They add valuable biodiversity to our milk-heavy diets and to cow-focused farms. Just as importantly, sheep milk makes wonderful cheese! It's unmistakably rich and buttery, even luscious on the tongue, and has a fuller barnyardy flavor than goat milk. Sheep milk contains double the butterfat of cow's milk: an average 7% vs 3.25%. That richness is the bedrock of some of the world's great cheeses, like Pecorino and manchego.
It's also the secret weapon of our bestselling mixed-milk cheese, Nancy's Camembert. In France, camembert is mainly a cow's milk affair. At Old Chatham Creamery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, cheesemakers blend sheep and cow milk for a triple cream bloomy rind cheese that we think beats the French original.
Among small producers, Old Chatham has one of America's largest flocks of milking sheep along with substantial herds of cows and goats. It's one of the few sheep dairies that isn't just surviving; it's thriving.
Tom and Nancy Clark (that's the Nancy in Nancy's) opened the farm in 1993, selling sheep milk yogurt and camembert to restaurants in the Hudson Valley and New York City. Back then, domestic sheep cheese was even fewer and farther between. Goat cheese was still cresting into the mainstream culinary consciousness of the 90s, and for most consumers, sheep milk products were just too funky to grab a foothold in the market. Of the sheep cheese that Americans did eat, much of it was (and remains) imported.
In 2014, the Clarks sold Old Chatham to Dave and Sally Galton. Dave had been supplying the farm with additional sheep milk for years at that point, and 30 years prior teaching dairy science across the U.S. and abroad. Today, Old Chatham Creamery is a state of the art farm and dairy. In addition to yogurt and wheels of Nancy's, the team produces several other kinds of bloomy rind cheeses, fresh chevres, potent blues, and aged cheddars and goudas.
This diversity of productions is one of the reasons Old Chatham can keep its flock of sheep flourishing. Lead aged cheesemaker Todd Pontius says Old Chatham's aged cow milk cheeses have been a boon in pandemic times, allowing the farm to store productions that can't sell immediately in an unpredictable market. Recently the Old Chatham team have been planning an expansion to a new space that could increase their aging capacity fourfold.
Beyond respecting tradition or pursuing unique flavors, cheesemaking is, first and foremost, the art of logistics. Cheese is like a bank—a way to store valuable, perishable milk and reap the returns of delicious fermented dairy over time. With its smaller market size and higher costs, sheep milk demands even more logistical acumen with less room for error.
If we want great American sheep milk products on our tables in 20 years, the time to invest in sheep dairies is now. Old Chatham is a remarkable example of operating a sheep cheese business at scale while still making an excellent Camembert style cheese. 30 years later, slicing into a wheel of Nancy's still feels like we're about to taste the next big thing.
Taste Nancy's Camembert from Old Chatham Creamery!
Farm photos courtesy of Old Chatham Creamery.