At A Glance
David and Cynthia Major
Westminster West, VT
Summary of Operation
• Seasonal, 200-head
sheep dairy that helps support Vermont Shepherd specialty
• Wool and lamb for ethnic markets,
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
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 start-up costs.”
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.,
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 sheep
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,” David says.
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 lambs.
“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
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,”
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 feeding efficiency.
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 in 1999.
“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 battle.”
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 area.
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