In recent decades, the Town of Gardiner has become a hotbed for herds of grass-fed beef cattle — including Brookside, Brykill, Four Winds, Full Moon and Kiernan Farms — supplying the region’s restaurants with prime chemical-free meats. A few farms also raise pigs or goats organically. But sheep raised that way for milk and meat, rather than for wool, are a rarer find. Brent and Carrie Wasser are making it happen now, at Willow Pond Sheep Farm on Route 44/55, just east of the Gardiner hamlet. “We’re very excited to bring local lamb to the Hudson Valley,” says Carrie, who partially grew up on the expansive property known as Seven Meadows Farm, where Willow Pond is located. Her parents, Greg and Janet Abels, were theater professionals living mainly in Manhattan when they bought the parcel as a country getaway in 1983. It includes a handsome 1880 farmhouse and an enormous, high-ceilinged barn that dates back at least to the mid-19th century, possibly earlier.
Carrie went off to study Political Science at Oberlin and worked for a while doing journalism for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before veering off into the world of sustainable farming. She moved to Vermont to work as the editor of a small magazine about local food, then began apprenticing at a variety of small farms, including a traditional sheep farm in Devonshire in England. It was during an internship at a Vermont farm in 2015 that she met Brent, who brought his students from a Sustainable Food and Agriculture course at Williams College on a field trip. A Sacramento native, Brent spent several years learning baking and pastry-making in Europe before coming to the Hudson Valley for the first time to study at the Culinary Institute of America. He got involved with Sprout Creek Farm’s earliest experiments in making cheese from goats’ milk and ended up as head cheesemaker there from 2003 to 2007.
Sheep’s milk cheese isn’t part of the short-term game plan for Willow Pond, Brent explains, because there’s no way to keep prices reasonable on a small scale. Because of the size of the animals, “Sheep’s milk is more expensive by volume,” he says. “And the more you concentrate it, the higher the price. When cheese is aged, that adds more to the cost.” But that doesn’t mean dairy products are out of the picture. Whole sheep’s milk in small containers, yogurt and gelato are what the Wassers have in mind, with production expected to begin in the spring of 2020. “As far as we know, no one is making sheep’s milk, ice cream or gelato anywhere near here,” says Brent. Gelato is easier to make from sheep’s milk, which typically has an eight percent fat content, than ice cream, which requires ten percent fat.
The couple are currently building a new barn to serve as a modern dairy facility, including a milking parlor, a processing and packaging room and an adjacent space for additional animal housing. While sheep generally thrive better outdoors, they’re brought into a barn during exceptionally cold, wet or windy weather, and especially during lambing season in late winter/early spring, according to Carrie. At present, the ground level of the historic barn serves as a lambing shelter, while the two upper rooms – one about 30 by 40 feet, the other about 35 by 50 – have been beautifully renovated by Carrie’s parents. The Wassers held their own wedding there in May, easily accommodating about 75 guests, and they plan to begin renting the space out for catered events beginning next spring.
For now, the emphasis is on building up their flock — or flocks, since the Wassers are raising two breeds of sheep: Dorsets, a “stockier, more muscular breed” that’s better for meat, says Brent, and East Friesians, bred for milk production. “We bought our first 12 dairy ewes in January, from a company called Vermont Shepherd. They were already bred when we got them, and we had them on the farm in March,” says Carrie. “That was our first experience in lambing, which was an absolute joy. They had 15 lambs.” The ram doing the impregnation honors for next year’s lamb crop, named Jupiter, is “special” because he’s a hybrid rare in the US: half East Friesian, half Lacoune — a French breed that, according to Brent, is “responsible for all the milk used for Roquefort cheese.” It was only last year that importation of Lacoune semen into the US was legalized, which made Jupiter possible.
The Wassers expect to have to purchase more already-pregnant ewes for another year or two until their dairy flock is fully established at a level of about 60 and the dairy barn infrastructure is complete. Male lambs “join the meat group,” says Carrie, while females are kept to grow the flock. The Dorsets are already self-sustaining, despite being culled for meat production, with the flock size expected to peak at 70 animals. They’re butchered at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, which Carrie notes is a “stress-free, Animal Welfare Approved” slaughterhouse. “Humane treatment is incredibly important to both of us. It’s a quiet, calm facility.” The lamb thus produced is available ground, as roasts, racks, shanks and chops. Carcasses destined for sausage and “lamb dogs” — particularly older animals, since mutton isn’t popular eating in this country — are sent to the Hudson Valley Sausage Company in Highland. Sausage varieties already available include garlic rosemary, tarragon, sweet Italian and a spicy North African style called merguez.
While dairy sheep need to have their diets supplemented with grain to support the caloric demands of milk production, the meat flock at Willow Pond is 100 percent grass-fed. The pasture acreage is divided up into sections by lightweight modular electrified fencing, portable and easily reconfigured. The Wassers practice rotational grazing, which keeps the pasture from being overgrazed and protects the sheep from parasites and the hoof diseases that can be caused by confinement to churned-up muddy ground. “We move them once a day to fresh pasture,” Carrie explains, with the assistance of two sheepdogs, Yarrow and Yaza. The dogs are Maremmas, a breed that has “guarded sheep in Italy for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“It’s labor-intensive, it’s long-term,” says Brett of the couple’s ambitious undertaking. “It should take us at least five years to establish.” But while you’re waiting to sample the specialty dairy products that the Wassers will be developing beginning next spring, you can buy some delicious grass-fed lamb right now. It’s already sold at Insook’s Kimchee and Organic Produce in Plattekill, the weekly farmers’ markets in Rhinebeck, Hudson and Newburgh and will soon be available at the Kingston Farmers’ Market. While there won’t be a farmstand on-site until the dairy barn is fully constructed next year, you can also arrange to pick up lamb products there by contacting Carrie Wasser at (845) 332-5583 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For updates on the progress of their venture, follow Willow Pond Sheep Farm on Facebook or visit the website at www.willowpondsheep.com. ++