April 15, 2011

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People have raised sheep for milk for thousands of years, but the idea is very new to most Kentuckians. One Eastern Kentucky family is embarking on an adventure as they build the state’s first sheep dairy and prepare to sell sheep’s milk cheese later this year.

Sanford and Colleen Dotson moved to Peasticks, because they said they felt a higher calling to a simpler life on the farm, raising sheep on rolling hills. Serious enough to take an early retirement buyout after a long career with Toyota, Sanford cashed in his 401K, bought a 132-acre Bath County farm  and began the hard work of building a successful dairy sheep herd and learning to make marketable cheese. They’ve also enlisted the help of their adult children Josh and Jenny.

“We’ve always liked sheep,” Sanford said. “We started researching and didn’t feel like we could make a living selling meat or wool from sheep.  The more research we did we found you could actually milk them and you could make cheese from the milk.”

The Dotsons admit they didn’t have any experience with sheep when they began the endeavor, but they’ve poured themselves into learning about the animals and the value-added products that will result from their hard work.

Sanford, Colleen and Josh attended the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s first Kentucky Cheesemaking School in last year, where they learned how to make several kinds of cheese. There, they were able to share their sheep dairy plans with UK sheep and goat specialist Terry Hutchens.

Hutchens explained that sheep are similar to goats in that producers can develop a sizeable business on a relatively small acreage with a relatively small investment compared to other livestock dairy enterprises. He and other UK Cooperative Extension specialists and agents work directly with producers to give them research-based advice for starting and maintaining a livestock enterprise and then help them find ways to add value to it.

“We developed the cheesemaking school so producers could learn how to jump start their cheese business,” Hutchens said. “It’s a good mixture of technology and hands-on cheesemaking skills. So when they leave there they can actually go back to the farm and start making some cheese.”

Josh Dotson said he thought cheesemaking was a very interesting experience.

“Cheese is kind of a mystery food you never really stop to think how it is made,” he said.  “You buy it in the store and accept it for what it is--dairy.  But it is a very scientific process; you don’t really know that until you get in and make it for yourself.”

The Dotsons bought East Friesian milk sheep from Vermont and started milking with six sheep last year and now they’ve got 29 bred ewes. The breed originated in Germany around the same area as the Holstein cow. They’re concentrating on making a French Pyrenees-style cheese that Sanford said is very creamy and full of the “good for you” kind of fat. They’ll call it Good Shepherd Cheese. Hutchens said they may not be able to produce it fast enough.

“There’s a big deficit of locally grown and produced cheese products,” Hutchens said. “There’s a tremendous pull for Lexington-area cheesemakers to sell in the Louisville area. So they (the Dotsons) will definitely have a market for all they can make.”

The Dotsons are looking forward to offering sheep cheese to Kentuckians later this year. Right now, they’re finishing up the milking barn and the cheese cave to store the products before they offer them for sale at farmers markets and local-food-friendly stores in Lexington and Louisville. 

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