Cheese recommendation: Shepherd’s Way Farm
Posted by Merritt Steidl, deli category analyst
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
In an ongoing effort to provide customers with the best local cheese experience, we sent a team, along with our 22 cheese specialists, to Nerstrand, MN, to spend the day at Shepherd’s Way Farm. Shepherd’s Way Farm is a family-run business headed by husband-wife team Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read. Together, with the help of their four sons, they produce small batches of artisanal sheep’s milk cheese.
Pioneers in the American dairy sheep industry, the two started their farm when dairy focus was directed more toward cows. Luckily, University of Minnesota experts Howard Morris and Ray Miller were able to help Jodi learn the craft of sheep milk cheese making. She also took classes at the University of Vermont, Burlington and University of Wisconsin, River Falls.
With Steven caring for the sheep and Jodi serving as the cheese maker, their dedication and attention to detail has won Shepherd’s Way national recognition and numerous American Cheese Society Awards.
Though Steven and Jodi like to keep their brand local and true to its Minnesota background, they took a competitive approach when naming their first cheese, Friesago. They liked the name because it sounded like it could fit in with other well-respected European cheeses. At that time, America was still building its reputation and prominence in the cheese-making industry. By aligning themselves with European cheeses, they were telling customers “Hey, this is good cheese!”
That’s no longer a concern today, as the American cheese industry has made enormous strides in the past 15 years. Steven and Jodi now name their cheeses after local landmarks and inspirations.
Sheep’s milk cheese production has also advanced greatly in America over the past decade. Before then, many people worked with cow’s milk, but very few took on sheep. Sheep produce a small amount of milk compared to other dairy animals. However, their milk is richer, creamier and sweeter than cow’s milk. For example, you could use it for cream in your coffee, but probably wouldn’t want to drink it alone. These unique characteristics give sheep’s milk cheeses very distinct flavors and textures.
During our Shepherd’s Way Farm visit, the spring lambing season was well underway and we instantly fell in love with the baby lambs as they pranced around the barn. This scene was far different in 2005 when a disastrous fire resulted in the loss of their barn, livestock housing, and more than 500 animals. They had been one of North America’s largest dairy sheep operations before the fire. This forced them to cease their national distribution to focus on rebuilding.
Newborn lambs can walk just minutes after birth. With so many new lambs in one place, mothers identify their own based on the sound of their voices. In addition to being absolutely adorable, the energetic youngsters were very social with our group.
Today, things are looking much brighter. Their flock is growing and a new barn was completed earlier this year. During our visit, we sampled a fantastic new semi-hard cheese. It was mild, nutty and smooth with a light earthy finish. The new cheese was unnamed at the tasting, however, we recently heard from Jodi and it will be called Burr Oak Haven. The name is a reference to one of the sheep’s favorite pastures on the farm. We anticipate this will be released (to the public) soon!
In the meantime, try adding some of these great Shepherd’s Way selections to your summer cheese trays.
Friesago – semi-aged sheep milk cheese, dense with a mild flavor and nutty finish
Shepherd’s Hope – fresh sheep milk cheese, mild with citrus notes; available in original and garlic. An American Cheese Society winner.
Big Woods Blue – full-flavored and earthy sheep milk blue, creamy in texture; 2011 American Cheese Society winner
Hidden Falls – soft, bloom-rind cheese made with sheep and cow milk, notes of citrus, wildflower and woodsy mushrooms
Morcella – seasonal soft-ripened sheep milk cheese made with local morel mushrooms, Creamy and earthy; made with spring and summer milk