From the early 1950’s until the late 1980’s, the United States government placed a high priority on subsidizing wool because of its importance as a material for military uniforms. During this time, David Major’s family was able to raise many sheep and earn up to three dollars a pound for their wool. The industry thrived, and allowed thousands of Americans make a decent living. When the subsidies ended in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the entire wool market in the United States collapsed. Once-vibrant woolen mills in Vermont and Rhode Island became obsolete, as the business of raising sheep quickly travelled overseas due to American farmers no longer being able to survive. While a shame, it challenged David Major and his family to seek other ways to make a living off their family’s herd. They decided a value-added product, such as cheese, might be the next phase of their farm. By 1993, after a few years of making it, the cheese started to become quite popular. Today Vermont Shepherd still makes one of the finest cheeses in the country, and takes deep pride in their land, the health of their animals, and in ensuring that their passion for delicious cheese continues on for many years to come.
David Major was born in Brattleboro and has lived almost his entire life on the 250-acre farm in Westminster, Vermont. He and his partner, Yesenia, have a blended family, with five children who have grown up on this land. They also have eight dogs, including three border collies who help shepherd the sheep; three guard dogs, including a German shepherd; and two additional companion dogs. David, Yesenia, and the kids thoroughly enjoy their time as farmers, from milking the sheep to assisting in the births of hundreds of lambs each winter/spring and, of course, making their famous cheese. Their work is diverse and fast-paced, and comes with many rewards, including living on gorgeous land while enjoying time with their family. A few of their kids have either moved back, like Yesenia’s son, Andrew, or plan to in order to help take on the work at the farm. It is clear that Vermont Shepherd is a family business and will continue to be so for many more generations.
Depending on the season, there could be as few as three hundred sheep and lambs on the farm or as many as seven hundred. They give birth to hundreds of lambs in their barns each year, which involves many overnights to ensure things go smoothly and that the ewes’ babies are safe and warm upon birth. During the milking season, which runs from April until October, they milk the sheep twice a day, at 5 am and 5 pm. As the seasons transition from spring to summer, they are able to milk more and more sheep until they hit the fall season, when it begins to dwindle again. They are constantly moving the sheep from pasture to pasture across their 250-acre property, as well as haying, shearing, and so many other tasks that come along with raising a herd of seven hundred animals. Their sheep almost exclusively eat the plants in the pastures, except when they are milking, when they get up to a half-pound of grain each day. At times, some of the cheeses take on the flavors of the wild grasses they graze on, giving them a lovely, unique twist each time they are produced while remaining consistent and delicious.
When we met with David and Yesenia they talked about being inspired by a visit to her family in the Dominican Republic who are also cheesemakers, of queso fresco. There, the cheese is made with no electricity in a mountainous region, with much of the milk coming from local farmers delivering their cows’ milk on the back of donkeys. As the milk is poured into the 50-gallon vat, it is still warm; no cultures are added because they already exist in the milk, the vat, and the air. The only ingredient added is rennet. The cheese-washing is done with water hauled by donkey from a nearby river. Once the cheese is finished, it is again loaded on donkeys and delivered to a town two miles away, all while orders are being placed over the delivery person’s cell phone. Yesenia and David helped create a proper milking parlor for the cows that are on the property, as well as a solid and level cheese house. What struck them on their visit was that there were no modern amenities to aid in the process, such as cheese cloth, nails and electricity—these cheesemakers are masters at making fresh cheese in tough conditions, all while delivering a safe and profitable product that supports the local region. While a far cry from the work on Vermont Shepherd, having perspective on how good they have it was helpful for Yesenia and David.
Vermont Shepherd specialize in two cheeses: Verano and Invierno. Both are made from raw milk, with an aging process of at least ninety days and sometimes up to two years. They process upwards of 100,000 gallons of sheep and cow’s milk annually, and create a minimum of 40,000 pounds of cheese. Starting in April and running until the end of November they make Verano, which is a 100% sheep’s milk cheese and aligns with the milking season. During the peak season they make cheese on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. David has recently taught Andrew how to make all of their cheeses, who said he loves making cheese because it’s hard work that, though it can be repetitive, is rewarding because of the amazing product they create. Cleaning is a pivotal part of cheesemaking; the cheese house we visited was immaculate, and most days is cleaned for more hours than cheese is made. During the creation of their raw milk cheeses, the Major family executes their process with precision and deep attention to detail. Legend has it that our Co-op’s founding cheese monger, Henry, called Verano one of the five best cheeses in the world. In 1993 Louis Fab-ricant of the New York Times called it the United States’ “Best Farmhouse Cheese.” That praise was a huge stepping stone for Vermont Shepherd, and created a large amount of exposure and fanfare that has helped them grow exponentially over time. Based on the success of Verano (Spanish for Summer), David and Yesenia wanted to create a cheese they could make during the winter months and came up with Invierno (Spanish for Winter), which is a mix of sheep’s milk and raw cow’s milk from the Putney School’s dairy farm. Both of the cheeses are aged in a cave on the north end of their property. David built the cave himself with both cedar and ash, which help cheeses age to perfection and provide easy deconstruction for cleaning. As David and Yesenia shared about their experiences from over thirty years of cheese-making, they talked about how important the rind is to a cheese, as the mold that forms is pivotal in shaping the flavor. During the aging process of Verano and Invierno, the rind evolves through many stages as the wheels are turned, and in the end helps create their delectable flavor and color.
Vermont Shepherd is distributed to many co-ops and cheese shops across the country. Verano and Invierno both have a national following, particularly in California, New York, and, of course, Vermont. We are fortunate that our proximity to the farm, which led to our Co-op being one of the first stores to stock their cheeses many years ago, has given us access to this exceptional cheese. They have some very large wholesale accounts that are even beginning to take their cheeses to commercial airline meal programs that travel as far as the Middle East. They also have a small farm store that does a tremendous business for many locals who love their cheese, as well as the cheese pilgrims that come to Vermont to enjoy a few days in the beautiful rolling hills. Business is booming for Vermont Shepherd, and the next step for them is to grow their operation. With Andrew recently getting married and wanting to start a family, they believe that the cheese could be the key to a sustainable and healthy life for many generations to come. Another son, Alex, is headed back to help out very soon, and their daughter Robin will support their work this summer. What does growth look like? Perhaps more sheep, maybe another milking parlor at the grandparents’ barn, and another possibility is a bigger cheese cave that may come from acquiring or renting more land. David, Yesenia, and Andrew are all very excited about what the future brings and look forward to the family business continuing and expanding to deliver delicious cheese to taste buds across Vermont and the country.
Join us on June 14th from 4-6 pm to taste the Vermont Shepherd cheese offerings, and don’t miss our specials on their cheeses throughout June!
By Jon Megas-Russell