At A Glance
David and Cynthia
Westminster West, VT
Summary of Operation
200-head sheep dairy that helps support Vermont
Shepherd specialty cheese
• Wool and lamb for ethnic
markets, maple syrup
Low profits. Although
the Majors always wanted to go into sheep farming,
a poor economy and stiff market competition for
wool and lamb in the 1980s, when they were just
starting out, encouraged them to explore niche
markets for sheep products. In 1988, they began
milking sheep to make specialty cheeses. At that
time, they were two of only a handful of people
in the country producing it.
The Majors improved their flock through selective
breeding, increasing milk production significantly
from one year to the next. Through experimentation
they developed a profitable, quality product that
they sell to specialty food shops and restaurants,
and through mail order and on-site sales. Demand
for this premium farmhouse cheese has encouraged
them to teach other Vermont farmers how to milk
sheep and make raw cheese, which they then ripen
in their cheese ripening room, dubbed the “cheese
cave,” and market as Vermont Shepherd Cheese.
“With our dairy, and by helping other farmers
get into sheep dairying, we are finding a way
for small farmers to produce a value-added product
while operating in an environmentally sound and
sustainable way,” David Major says.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 71 to 73
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
Money out of Milk: David and Cynthia Major
have influenced several other Vermont sheep producers
to begin making high-value cheese.
Both David and Cynthia Major
come from farming families. David grew up on the farm and
spent six years working in the wool industry in southern Vermont,
where he and Cynthia now live. Cynthia’s family is in
the dairy processing business in Queens, N.Y. The processing
facility sits on land that has been in her family for more
than a century and was once used for dairy farming.
After they married, David and Cynthia moved in with David’s
family, who raised sheep. The Majors tried to make a go of
traditional sheep farming, selling lamb and wool from a small
flock of Dorset-Rambouillet crosses, but were not successful.
“The economics were so pitiful, we couldn’t make
it,” Cynthia explains, “even though we had no
Her father suggested they try milking sheep, so they researched
the subject then traveled to France’s Pyrenees region
to learn from experienced cheesemakers firsthand. Although
their early attempts at producing cheese were unsuccessful,
by 1993 — after a second trip to Europe —they
developed a marketable product. In a complete turnaround,
the Majors’ cheese, under the “Vermont Shepherd
Cheese” label, was named best farmhouse sheep’s
milk cheese in a national competition that year. They have
continued to win awards, earning “best of show”
at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition
in Sonoma County, Calif., in 2000.
The Majors have received grants from the Vermont Land Trust
and the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets
to help other farmers start sheep dairies. In 1995, they began
offering workshops and six-week internships for prospective
sheep dairy farmers to learn the business.
Focal Point of Operation —
Production, aging and marketing
Nine producers have sold unripened, or “green”
cheese, to the Major farm in the last five years, and six
farms now collaborate to make Vermont Shepherd Cheese. The
Majors buy cheese from these local farms when it is a week
old and age it in the “cheese cave,” a former
apple storage facility, for four to eight months, depending
on the type of cheese. The labor-intensive process requires
the cave’s affineur, or cheese ripener, to turn and
brush each wheel of cheese every other day to develop the
flavor to its fullest.
The Major Farm is the largest of the participating producers,
milking 130 sheep during the season on about 120 acres of
pasture. Last year, the farm produced about 9,000 pounds of
cheese. “Since we started, production is up significantly,”
In their first milking year, each sheep produced an average
of 60 pounds of milk in a little more than two months. By
contrast, in 2000, the average production was 340 pounds per
ewe in six months, even with one month off to nurse their
“The difference is due to improved genetics and better
management,” David says. “Production has been
going up 20 to 30 percent per year on our farm.”
Quality control is critical, with each farm required to follow
the same traditional European mountain cheese recipe. The
farmers make cheese only during the spring and summer months
when the sheep are grazing on fresh pasture grasses and herbs.
“We grade every batch of Vermont Shepherd Cheese for
flavor and texture,” David says, to ensure that “the
highest quality cheese” is sold under their label.
A panel of three: a retailer, a cheese ripener and a farmer,
grades the cheese each month. Cheeses that meet the panel’s
approval are branded with the Vermont Shepherd logo. Recently,
the Majors added two cow’s milk cheeses, made from the
unpasteurized milk of Jersey cows on a neighboring farm, to
their product line.
Having a good product is tantamount to the success of a business,
but, the Majors have learned, so is how it is marketed. The
key to their success is what they call the “essence
of the land.”
“We let the stores know where the cheeses are from to
create product identity and capture the reality of cheese
producers on small farms,” David explains. “They
are capturing a piece of that farm in their product —
that location and the flavors of that farm.”
They sell Vermont Shepherd Cheese to national distributors,
about 50 to 60 restaurants and specialty food outlets from
Maine to California, with one of the largest markets being
the nearby Brattleboro Food Co-op. It also is sold over the
Internet and at the farm.
“At first we sold only through the farmers market and
local food outlets,” David says. “It was only
after we received a national award that our sales became national,
and those customers contacted us.”
Economics and Profitability
Last year, Vermont Shepherd Cheese’s six farms produced
15,000 pounds of cheese, which wholesaled for more than $10
per pound. Recently, about 25 percent of their mail order
sales — $3,000 to $20,000 in orders per month from all
over the country — came from their web site.
“Our goal is to increase profitability by developing
new marketing channels and continuing to hold onto the markets
we have,” David says.
Major Farm is the best known of all the sheep dairies in the
state, and the most profitable. In addition to its sheep and
cow’s milk cheeses, they sell 350 lambs per year, primarily
to ethnic markets in Boston and New Haven, Conn. The farm’s
best quality wool goes to Green Mountain Spinnery for yarn,
with the rest becoming blankets via Vermont Fiberworks. David’s
brother and a neighbor manage the grove of maple trees, called
sugarbush in New England parlance, selling the syrup —
around 200 gallons a year — through wholesale, retail,
and farmgate sales.
Its name recognition has a downside, too. When news broke
that mad sheep disease had been detected in Vermont, the media
immediately called the Majors. In response, the Majors contacted
all of their customers, assuring them that neither they nor
any of the farmers with whom they worked were affected. They
also sent out press releases and spoke with a number of TV,
radio and newspaper reporters.
In keeping with the Majors’ goal of managing an environmentally
sound operation, David and Cynthia spread whey and wastewater
from cheese processing back onto the land, recycling nutrients
back into the soil. Because the sheep are pastured outdoors
most of the year, their manure fertilizes the pastureland
without need for human labor. They spread their manure from
winter confinement on the hayfields.
The Major Farm, along with all the other farms that provide
raw cheese to Vermont Shepherd Cheese, practices intensive
rotational grazing, which ensures healthy and productive fields.
The farm also is involved in a SARE grant, initiated by a
University of New Hampshire sheep specialist, to help farmers
improve their feeding systems by improving grass quality and
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
The Majors have made a firm goal of increasing the number
of sheep dairies in Vermont. With their workshops and internships
and by converting raw materials from other farmers into a
highly profitable product, they have helped a number of farmers
in the area become more efficient — and more profitable.
Through collaboration, and by centralizing cheese ripening
and marketing efforts, everyone benefits, David believes.
Increased production and growing interest by other Vermont
farmers in sheep dairying prompted the University of Vermont
to hire its first small ruminant specialist three years ago.
David and Cynthia worked with her to secure a SARE grant to
bring a French cheesemaker to Vermont for six weeks to work
with Vermont Shepherd Cheese producers to help them make better
cheese. The Majors also participated in a workshop organized
by the food safety specialist on food production.
The Majors welcome visitors to their farm, offering free tours
of the cave and cheese tastings twice a week during August,
September and October. School classes often visit during lambing
season and at milking time. The farm also has hosted other
producers and industry people for tours and meetings, including
the participants of the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium
“We, and the farmer south of us, also a sheep dairy,
take care of a noticeable amount of land in town,” David
points out. “Generally speaking, we are looked on favorably
in this community, receiving lots of positive feedback. But
we have had to put in a great deal of time talking to people
about mad cow and mad sheep disease. It’s an uphill
The Majors have also tried to be sensitive to new landowners,
many of whom have purchased second homes and are unfamiliar
with farming, to help them know what to expect in the agrarian
David likes that their operation allows him to work with his
extended family. His parents still live on the property, helping
with the day-to-day tasks, as do his two children, ages 9
and 11. His brother, a veterinarian, also lends a hand as
needed. “I farm because I love it, because it is important
for me and the rest of humanity to have a closeness to the
land in some fashion,” he says.
Although David believes the market for specialty cheeses is
growing, his advice to farmers considering a sheep dairy,
or diversification into cheesemaking, is to wait.
“The agricultural economy in this state has been so
dismal this past year for all farmers, not just us, that the
best advice I can give is to wait a few years.” He adds
that “biotechnology has thrown a lot of uncertainty
into the system. We are being affected as well by mad cow
and mad sheep disease. Even though it has not affected us
directly, the perception is there.”
Although this farm couple is satisfied with the size of their
operation, they are working toward becoming more efficient
and will continue to improve the genetics of their flock.
Their future vision also includes increasing the number of
sheep dairies in Vermont.
“We would like to see farmers working together in the
model that we developed to sell products produced on the farm,”
he says. “The model has merit for both the farmer and
in the marketing world.”
--Photograph by Valerie Berton