Petaluma sheep farmers find new market for their milk
To the delight of two young girls in rubber boots, a dairy truck with a famous bovine painted on its side backed slowly one recent morning into the main yard of Haverton Hill Creamery to pick up the new shipment of milk.
As the girls and two border collies scampered about the dirt and gravel, Joe Adiego and two farmworkers readied a forklift with something new in Clo the Cow Country: crates of glass bottles filled with the cream-rich milk of woolly ewes, not stout-legged Holsteins or doe-eyed Jerseys.
Indeed, the Adiego family’s creamery outside Petaluma appears to be the first in the nation to bottle sheep milk and send it off to grocery stores. Its owners hope to build a following among the multitudes looking for alternatives to what comes out of a cow’s udder.
Missy Adiego, Joe’s wife, acknowledged the first question she typically hears from consumers is one that she herself once uttered: “Wait, you can milk sheep?”
But Adiego and her husband maintain that many who try the milk consider it among the most delicious they’ve ever consumed.
“It’s really tasty,” she said. The flavor is “nothing like goat’s milk.” Rather, it is akin to what you get from a cow but “with a slightly sweeter, nuttier taste.”
Moreover, they and others said, many who suffer lactose intolerance find that they can digest sheep’s milk.
The sweeping grasslands of west Marin and Sonoma counties have long been dairy country. The cow dairies here provide the creamy product for longtime processor Clover Stornetta Farms, for which Clo the Cow is Sonoma County’s most-recognized business mascot. As well, the region in the last 15 years has become home to more than two dozen artisan cheese makers.
But the ranks of dairy farmers have declined here under intense competition. Survival often has required finding a niche, at times by switching to organic production, cheese making or, rarely, milking sheep or goats.
The Adiegos are partners in Haverton Hill with Joe’s parents, Tony and Jolene Adiego. Their creamery sits on an old cow dairy just outside the hamlet of Bloomfield. Joe and Missy Adiego live there with their daughters, Avery, 6, and Hadley, 4, who still get excited when the Dairy Delivery truck with the Clo the Cow logo comes for the sheep milk.
Tony and Joe Adiego’s background is in the dairy equipment business, but nearly four years ago, the family began providing sheep milk to Bellwether Farms, a Petaluma maker of cheese and yogurt. The Adiegos lease three ranches totaling about 570 acres; they have built up their herd to more than 1,000 ewes.
In the last month, a few North Bay grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Community Market, have stocked their full-fat, pasteurized sheep milk. This week, it went into the refrigerated section of the three stores of Cotati-based Oliver’s Market, selling for $10.99 a quart.
“I really think people are going to love this, and I think it’s going to take off,” said Michael Moody, Oliver’s natural products buyer. “Because it’s good.”
Moody, who counts himself among the lactose intolerant, said Haverton Hill is “certainly easier on the palate than other alternative milks that I’ve had.” That includes those made from soy, coconuts, almonds and cashews. He said he was fine after consuming a cup of sheep’s milk — an amount that far surpassed what he could have digested of cow’s milk.
Sheep milk amounts to a drop in the ocean of the U.S. dairy industry.
The Dairy Sheep Association of North America has about 150 members spread from Canada to Mexico, said Bill Halligan, the group’s treasurer and a Nebraska sheep dairyman. He estimated the three countries combined likely have no more than 200 sheep dairies.
As for producers of bottled sheep’s milk, he said, “the only one I know of is at Haverton Hill.”
In the U.S., sheep milk production typically drops off dramatically in the fall, about 200 days after lambing season. But Joe Adiego has crossbred his East Friesian/Lacombe dairy sheep with Dorsets, a meat sheep that give birth to lambs year round. The crossbreeding allowed the creamery’s milk production to stay more consistent.
One lesson he has learned is that just like dairy cows need more attention than beef cattle, the dairy sheep require more care than meat sheep, including supplemental feed for their survival.
“I can’t turn these sheep out on the hills and expect them to live,” Joe Adiego said. “They’re a very fragile breed.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or email@example.com. On Twitter @rdigit