Tucked away in the lush, green countryside of South Whidbey Island is one of its best kept secrets.
Glendale Shepherd farm and dairy in Clinton has earned a reputation for producing some of the finest sheep’s milk cheeses in the country. In fact, the dairy’s Island Brebis cheese was listed as one of the top ten U.S. cheeses by Food & Wine magazine.
“Our Island Brebis gets the most attention,” said Lynn Swanson, who runs the farm and dairy with her husband Stan and one of their three sons, Erik.
Although Swanson said she doesn’t know how the magazine found out about their cheese, it should come as no surprise, since their products are featured in several exclusive Seattle restaurants and sold at select retail stores and farmers markets on Whidbey Island and the mainland during the season. Island Brebis was also the winner of the 2014 Good Food Award.
The key to Glendale Shepherd’s success is easy: well-cared for animals that produce high quality milk and meticulous attention to cleanliness and detail during production. But it all begins with the milk. Sheep’s milk contains less water so the yield is higher and is richer, so its cheese doesn’t necessarily have the “bite” that is common with goat cheese, for instance.
“Most people describe drinking sheep’s milk as drinking melted ice cream,” Swanson said. “It’s really rich.”
Early spring is lambing season, which means the start of milking season. Last year Swanson said they produced about 28,000 pounds of milk. (A gallon of cow’s milk weighs about 8.6 pounds.) This year the dairy is milking 62 ewes and expects that number to increase.
Glendale Shepherd produces seven different kinds of cheese in addition to the Island Brebis and also produces yogurt. Varieties range from hard cheeses like Island Brebis and Woodsman that cure for as long as a year, to softer cheeses with a shorter curing time like Tallulah, a softer variety, or Brebis Frais, a fresh milk, spreadable cheese.
“The milk also makes a wonderful feta,” said Swanson.
Not bad for a venture that began only about eight years ago. Swanson said her husband’s parents bought the farm in 1949. She and Stan took over running it 30 years ago, raising sheep mostly for meat and wool. The couple’s son, Erik, who is a now a third-generation co-owner of the business, suggested they try raising dairy sheep, which they did in 2008. The move was good in many ways.
“I loved their temperament,” Swanson said of the dairy sheep. A life-long animal lover who grew up on a dairy farm, Swanson said she always wanted to have cows again. But she has discovered a real affinity for the sheep.
“In personality, they’re like little cows and they have wonderful milk,” she said. “They’re not escape artists, like goats, and they’re grazers; they like grass and hay.”
They also have wonderful fleece, said Swanson, who is known to keep a fleece or two to spin in her spare time. Mostly, though, her love of producing a top-notch product keeps her busy.
“I love making cheese and I love making good food,” she said.
She also loves the process. She keeps meticulous records and is a self-proclaimed fanatic about sanitation, all of which contribute to the end product.
“Every cheese we make is closely monitored,” she said. “I spend more time record-keeping than anything else.”
Swanson said there’s an advantage to being a small producer.
“We’re looking at everything. We’re looking at healthy animals and watching them every day,” she said. “We have well-cared-for animals. And if you’re doing right by your animals, then you’re doing a darn good job.”
Glendale Shepherd’s farm store is open Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during milking season. Private tours of the farm can be arranged through their website. For more information, go to www.glendaleshepherd.com or find them on Facebook.