In recent decades, the town of Gardiner has become a home for herds of grass-fed beef cattle – including Brookside, Brykill, Four Winds, Full Moon and Kiernan Farms – supplying area restaurants with meats top quality without chemicals. Some farms also raise organic pigs or goats. But sheep raised this way for milk and meat, rather than wool, are a rarer find. Brent and Carrie Wasser realize it now, at Willow Pond Sheep Farm on Highway 44/55, just east of the hamlet of Gardiner. “We’re excited to bring local lamb to the Hudson Valley,” says Carrie, who grew up in part on the sprawling property known as Seven Meadows Farm, where Willow Pond is located. His parents, Greg and Janet Abels, were theater professionals living primarily in Manhattan when they purchased the plot for a country getaway in 1983. It features a beautiful 1880 farmhouse and enormous high-ceilinged barn that dates back to the least in the middle of the 19th century, possibly earlier.
Carrie went to study political science at Oberlin and worked for a time doing journalism for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette before diving into the world of sustainable agriculture. She moved to Vermont to work as the editor of a small local food magazine, then began her apprenticeship on various small farms, including a traditional sheep farm in Devonshire, England. It was while interning on a farm in Vermont in 2015 that she met Brent, who took his students from a sustainable food and agriculture course at Williams College on a field trip. . Originally from Sacramento, Brent spent several years learning baking and pastry making in Europe before coming to the Hudson Valley for the first time to study at the Culinary Institute of America. He became involved in Sprout Creek Farm’s early experiments in making cheese from goat’s milk and served as the cheesemaker there from 2003 to 2007.
Sheep’s milk cheese isn’t part of Willow Pond’s short-term game plan, Brent says, because there’s no way to keep prices reasonable on a small scale. Due to the size of the animals, “sheep’s milk is more expensive in volume,” he says. “And the more you concentrate it, the higher the price. When the cheese is aged, it further increases the cost. But that doesn’t mean dairy is out of the question. Whole sheep’s milk in small containers, yogurt and ice cream are what the Wassers have in mind, with production slated to begin in the spring of 2020,” says Brent. Ice cream is easier to make from sheep’s milk, which is typically 8% fat, than ice cream, which requires 10% fat.
The couple are currently constructing a new barn to serve as a modern dairy facility, including a milking parlour, processing and packing room and adjacent space for housing additional animals. Although sheep generally thrive best outdoors, they are brought into a barn during unusually cold, wet or windy weather, and particularly during the late winter/early spring lambing season, according to Carrie. Currently, the ground floor of the historic barn is used as a lambing shelter, while the two upper bedrooms – one approximately 30 by 40 feet, the other approximately 35 feet of 50 – have been beautifully renovated by Carrie’s parents. The Wassers held their own wedding there in May, easily accommodating around 75 guests, and they plan to start renting the space for catered events starting next spring.
For now, the focus is on building up their herd – or herds, since the Wassers raise two breeds of sheep: the Dorsets, a “stockier, more muscular breed” that is better for meat, said Brent, and the East Frisians, bred for milk. production. “We purchased our first 12 dairy ewes in January from a company called Vermont Shepherd. They were already bred when we got them and we got them on the farm in March,” says Carrie. “It was our first lambing experience, it was a real pleasure. They had 15 lambs. The ram doing the honors of impregnation for next year’s lamb crop, named Jupiter, is “special” because it is a rare hybrid in the United States: half East Friesian, half Lacoune – a French breed which, according to Brent, is “responsible for all the milk used for Roquefort. It was only last year that the import of Lacoune semen into the United States was legalized, making Jupiter possible.
The Wassers expect to have to buy more pregnant ewes for another year or two until their dairy herd is fully established at around 60 and the dairy barn infrastructure is complete. The male lambs “join the meat group,” Carrie explains, while the females are kept to grow the flock. The Dorsets are already self-sufficient, although they have been culled for meat production, with herd sizes expected to peak at 70 animals. They are slaughtered at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, which Carrie says is a “stress-free, animal welfare-approved slaughterhouse.” “Humane treatment is extremely important to both of us. It is a calm and quiet establishment. Lamb produced in this way is available ground, as roasts, racks, shanks and chops. Carcasses for sausage and “lamb dogs” — especially older animals, as mutton is not a popular food in this country – are sent to the Hudson Valley Sausage Company in Highland. Sausage varieties already available include garlicky rosemary, tarragon, mild Italian, and a spicy North African style called merguez.
While dairy ewes need their diet supplemented with grain to meet the caloric needs of milk production, Willow Pond’s meat herd is 100% grass fed. The pasture surface is divided into sections by lightweight, portable and easily reconfigurable modular electrified fences. The Wassers practice rotational grazing, which avoids overgrazing of the pasture and protects the sheep from parasites and hoof diseases that can be caused by confinement on stirred up muddy ground. “We move them once a day to new pastures,” says Carrie, with the help of two sheepdogs, Yarrow and Yaza. The dogs are Maremma, a breed that “has been herding sheep in Italy for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“It’s labor-intensive, it’s long-term,” Brett says of the couple’s ambitious venture. “It should take us at least five years to establish ourselves.” But until you get a taste of the specialty dairy products the Wassers will be developing starting next spring, you can buy delicious grass-fed lambs right now. It is already sold at Insook’s Kimchee and Organic Produce in Plattekill, the weekly farmers’ markets in Rhinebeck, Hudson and Newburgh and will soon be available at the Kingston Farmers’ Market. Although there is no on-site farm until the dairy barn is fully built next year, you can also arrange to pick up lamb products there by contacting Carrie Wasser at (845 ) 332-5583 or [email protected] For updates on their business progress, follow Willow Pond Sheep Farm on Facebook or visit the website at www.willowpondsheep.com. ++