Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase had a couple of Nigerian goats when they were both working in the legal profession in California. “We really enjoyed them,” said Sheila, adding that one of her favorite pastimes was checking out farms around the country. “We always thought we’d make a major break but didn’t think we really would.”
When the two found a New York farm that seemed just right, they decided to take the plunge. “We really liked the farm and the cheeses that they were developing,” said Sheila. “We drove across the country, signed the papers and Lorraine was milking goats the next morning. It was huge leap of faith, but looking back 10 years later, we’re very happy that we did it.”
The Warrensburg, NY, farm came with a name, about 36 goats and a small cheese-making operation. “They already had the Nettle Meadow name,” said Sheila, referring to the farm’s previous owners. “They had been selling chèvre and Kunik, which is our trademark cheese. The Kunik was still in development — it needed to be standardized. But some of the cheeses we sell today were already in the marketplace, which was a huge boost for us.”
Some of the original goats were Boer crosses, which Sheila says works well for the environment. “It gives them some hardiness that they need for the cold winters and hot summers,” she said. “We still have some Boer crosses in the herd.”
To increase the herd, they purchased additional dairy goats — mostly LaManchas, Alpines and Nubians — and retained about half of the kids born on the farm. Today, Nettle Meadow is home to 250 adult goats, about 50 to 60 young does and 80 adult milking sheep. The sheep are primarily East Friesian, a dairy breed originating in Germany, along with some Finnsheep. Sheila says some years, Friesians will breed out of season but are mostly seasonal. Lambs are hand-raised from just a few days old, which Sheila says helps when it comes to training them for milking.
Goat kids are separated from the does at birth and fed heat-treated colostrum, then raised on a combination of pasteurized goat’s milk and milk replacer. Sheila and Lorraine rely on cleanliness, nutrition and pasteurized milk to keep the herd free of CAE and other goat diseases. Young stock are raised on a recently purchased nearby farm, which gives young immune systems a chance to develop before joining the mature herd. Animals that are no longer productive remain on the farm in a dedicated retirement area.
Although lactation periods vary according to individual animals, most goats average six months in milk. Does are bred about one month before their current lactation ends, which allows ample time for recovery before joining the milking herd again.
Goats and sheep are milked in the original parlor, which accommodates 10 animals at a time in a straight-line configuration, but Sheila and Lorraine are working on updating the facility. Fresh milk goes to directly to cheesemaking on the premises, six times a day, seven days a week. “We are fortunate that the main farm was a former Jersey butter farm in the 1700s, and there was a butter cellar that works well as an aging cave,” said Sheila. “As we grew over the years, the cellar was expanded into other parts of the cheese plant basement at the same level and conditions as the existing cave.”
Most people who venture into a cheese-making operation take courses or work as apprentices, but because Sheila and Lorraine had been making cheese on a hobbyist level, it wasn’t completely new to them. When they arrived at Nettle Meadow, the goats were producing enough for 15-gallon batches, so it wasn’t a huge leap to make small scale commercial batches. Today, they process several hundred gallons of milk each day. Cow’s milk for cheeses that require it is purchased from nearby Hudson Valley Farms.
Kunik, their most difficult to make and also their most popular cheese, was started by the previous owners. Sheila and Lorraine continued to develop and refine the triple crème cheese made from goat and cow milk, and make an average of 150 to 200 pounds of Kunik every day, all year long. In addition, an average 100 to 250 pounds of chevre is made every day. All other cheeses are in smaller batches.
“It’s a very fragile cheese,” said Sheila as she described the Kunik. “A few years ago, the American Cheese Society awarded the Kunik first place for best triple crème in North America.” Nettle Meadow’s Three Sisters, a mixed-milk (sheep, goat and cow) cheese, was awarded third place at the same contest.
With a large herd and a thriving cheese business, Sheila and Lorraine realized their focus should be on cheese-making, overall herd health and some marketing. They hired a SUNY Cobleskill animal science graduate who had been working at Nettle Meadow since she was a teenager to serve as the herd manager.
Most finished cheese goes directly to cold storage in Long Island City. “Cheese distributers from around the country pick up cheese from there and sell to about 12 national distributors,” said Sheila. “We used to drive around the Hudson Valley, southern Adirondack and Saratoga areas to make deliveries, but we realized that we were trying to do too many things. Running a dairy farm, making the cheese and distributing cheese are three completely different businesses, and we were trying to do all three. The most common sense thing to do was to let go of the distribution.” Sheila says it took several years for their cheeses to gain a following beyond the New York City, Boston and Saratoga region, but now their cheese is distributed throughout the United States.
Sheila and Lorraine also operate a farm store and offer tours on Saturday so people can meet the animals. “It’s a good opportunity for people to see how much work goes into making cheese,” said Sheila.
Visit Nettle Meadow online at www.nettlemeadow.com