Scaling Up Means Closing Down Farmstead Creamery’s Pastoral Operation

No dairy sheep at pasture or in the barn in Old Chatham (Columbia County, NY) in Sept. 2017 after the relocation of Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.’s Friesian sheep to Locke (Cayuga County) in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY

The modern and industrial-scale barn on Bird Cemetery Road in Locke (Cayuga County, NY)

Couple thousand sheep now housed in the football field sized barn

Sheep no longer grazing on grassy Old Chatham pasture land (but instead fed “locally sourced hay and grain”) with tubes of hay stored on nearby fields

The creamery in Old Chatham scheduled to close at the end of October 2018 but may keep operating until the end of the year.

Sign announcing the closing of the self-serve honor store in Old Chatham at the end of October

Woodstock organic frozen vegetables are not grown in Woodstock (Sullivan County, NY) and sometimes are sourced from Chile and Mexico, so no surprise if Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. branding remains in use, but the marketing language on the Black Sheep Yogurt containers certainly should disappear in the new year!

Flocks of sheep at pasture in the idyllic landscape along Shaker Museum Road in Old Chatham, in the northern reaches of Columbia County in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, have become a mere memory. In early September, 2017, this advocate for farmstead yogurt and cheese makers (who recommends scanning our yogurt and cheese directories for a local source of artisanal dairy products), had a big surprise on a visit to Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s farm and creamery to stock up on its Black Sheep Yogurt from the refrigerator cases at its unstaffed, self-serve, honor store.

No sheep on the 600 acres of lush, grassy pasture land (except for a neighbor’s small herd raised for their fiber and meat), and no sheep in the barn: The initial flock of 150 dairy sheep at the start of the farmstead operation back in 1994 had grown to over 1,000 East Friesian crossbred sheep in later years but were no longer to be seen in pastoral Old Chatham in late summer 2017. A sad discovery, the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s dairy sheep had been relocated to the Finger Lakes region of New York, and were now part of a flock of 2,100, milked twice a day, and fed a combination of locally sourced hay and grains.

And with no sheep left in Old Chatham, this local food advocate was troubled by the marketing language spotlighted on the popular Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.’s Black Sheep Yogurt containers that We produce our great sheep’s milk yogurt with care on our farm in Old Chatham, New York.  How so, if all the sheep were now 200 miles away in the Finger Lakes region of New York?

Only after puzzling over this marketing language for nearly a year, I confess that the light bulb went on only after a recent visit in late October, 2018 to the farm in Old Chatham. I noticed some workers in all-white uniforms, including a white cap, coming out of one of the farm buildings which proved to the creamery, still in operation. A lawyer-like analysis focused on the verb produce. arguably could justify the continued usage of the marketing language on the yogurt containers.

Although the sheep were no longer in Old Chatham, the creamery located at the farmstead in Columbia County was still in operation. Ergo, the yogurt and cheese was still being produced on the farm in Old Chatham. Sheep milk apparently was transported from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to the creamery in Old Chatham to be made into yogurt and cheese. But it certainly was not the same as the yogurt and cheese produced from sheep at pasture in the pastoral setting in Columbia County from prior years.

To produce sheep or cow milk without grain goes well beyond modern dairy farming practices, and for that matter, organic milk norms. Grazing dairies deserve special recognition and support from consumers and earn the premium pricing levels for their products by mindfully maintaining adequate pasture land for their ruminants a/k/a bovidae (cows are bovines; sheep, ovines; goats, caprices). We take some pride in offering directories of such yogurt and cheese dairies.

Last year, we reported on Consumer Reports’ recommendation for consumers to choose grass-fed meat and dairy products. This consumer is also impressed by farmstead dairies like Painted Goat in Garratsville (Otsego County, NY) and Black Pearl Creamery in Trumansburg (Tompkins County, NY) that give their goats and sheep, respectively, a rest from milking in winter months!

By the end of 2018, the creamery on the farm in Old Chatham will be out of operation. Presumably, beginning in 2019, the marketing language on the Black Sheep Yogurt containers, which troubled this local food advocate, will also be a memory. No doubt Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. has become a branding that is very valuable. It seems likely that it will retain some commercial life.

Woodstock organic frozen vegetables sold at my hometown Honest Weight Food Co-op also offered a surprise for this consumer on realizing that these frozen vegetables did not share any link to famous Woodstock, New York, other than a name. Mexico and Chile were often noted in smaller print on the packages as the source of the frozen vegetables for sale with that branding.

In short, consumers should be wary and read labels carefully. Branding can be deceptive. This consumer when shopping occasionally for organic frozen vegetables much prefers Stahlbush Island Farms’, also stocked by the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Check out its website and compare it to Woodstock’s, and you’ll see why. Stahlbush Island Farms cultivates 5,000 acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley on its family farm, and it’s easy to pinpoint on a map where its frozen vegetables come from. Woodstock is an agribusiness with 250+ products in over ten categories and touts that more than 70% of its products are domestically sourced. Not so easy for the consumer to know exactly where those frozen vegetables come from.

(Frank W. Barrie, 11/2/18)

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