Many cheese makers prefer not to work with sheep since the wooly ovines don't give milk year-round, but Clinton dairy farmer Lynn Swanson appreciates the seasonality of sheep milk production.
"My family was all cow dairymen in Carnation," says Swanson of Glendale Shepherd, slated to become the region's newest cheese maker if her production facility passes an upcoming permitting inspection. "It's the same thing every day; it goes on and on and on. The idea of having seven months milking and five months off is fabulous for me."
Although sheep milk has a high solids content -- meaning a gallon of sheep's milk yields more cheese than the same amount of milk from a cow or goat -- and many sheep's milk cheeses are highly prized, sheep dairies remain a rarity statewide. Swanson estimates there are fewer than half a dozen dairies exclusively raising sheep.
Swanson years ago started raising sheep for meat and wool, and began milking them when a blood test revealed she couldn't tolerate cow's milk. "I'm not a big fan of goat's milk, so I stupidly tried to milk wool sheep," she recalls. "Those ornery old girls didn't enjoy the whole process."
When she acquired a true dairy sheep, she says, "my eyes were opened." She's since sold off the wool sheep, and purchased 16 ewes who are now lambing.
"I've got three triplets in my living room that were born last night," Swanson says. "Their mother had strangely large teats, and they just could not deal with it."
When the lambs reach 35 pounds, Swanson will start collecting their mothers' milk for her Island Bais, a type of tomme. "We've got a great recipe," she says. Since the cheese has to age for at least three months, Swanson anticipates the cheese will go on sale in late summer.
"It's really hard waiting, but I want everyone to get the best at the beginning," she says.