Tucked away in the Clinton woods north of Possession Point, a pasture overlooking Puget Sound is filled with Stan and Lynn Swanson’s happy sheep herd, whose milk makes Whidbey’s own artisan cheese.
And the sheep’s milk cheese has caught the attention of foodie magazines and local chefs alike.
Glendale Shepherd is home to 60 milking sheep who happily graze the waterfront farm property throughout the year. The land has been in the Swanson family for three generations, ever since Stan Swanson’s parents bought the farm in 1949. In those days, there were no roads to the property and the Swansons typically reached their land via boat. Without a home built on their spot by the sea, they would set up a campsite “Robinson Crusoe style” and would camp out for the summertime, Stan Swanson said. A lot has changed since then, as a farmstead now stands on the land complete with a milking barn, a building to store cheese, pastures and a large residence overlooking the Sound.
“We love it here,” Lynn Swanson said. “We didn’t always make cheese, we started by accident pretty much. When I started milking sheep just to have milk, I instantly ended up with too much. Then I started playing around with cheese and took a few classes.”
The Swansons got their Grade A Dairy license in 2011 and have never looked back. While the farm has kept the operation small, the cheese has received recognition from Food & Wine Magazine, who named their Island Brebis as one of the country’s top 13 cheeses. Edible Seattle Magazine and Washington Tasting Room also gave the farmstead some ink in their pages.
Award-winning Seattle chef Ethan Stowell’s restaurants carry Glendale Shepherd cheese as does upscale Seattle restaurants Sitka and Spruce and Bar Ferdinand. South Whidbey spots such as Orchard Kitchen and Kalakala Mercantile Co. also regularly serve up their goods.
The relatively small amount of cheese made doesn’t struggle to find a home.
“Keeping things small makes it easier to maintain a level of control and produce good milk,” Lynn Swanson said. “Even on a very small level, you have challenges with consistency. A characteristic of seasonal dairy is variation in the milk, but it’s something you have to accept.”
Glendale Shepherd is an animal welfare approved farmstead, and the proof is in the sheep. They happily graze the pastures and wander the property’s forests. Their happiness is reflected by the owners and the farm staff, who cheerfully go about their business producing cheese that chefs and cheese heads seem to love.
“She (Lynn) makes a crazy assortment of cheeses and it’s remarkable how well she does these varieties of cheeses,” said Vincent Nattress, chef and owner of Orchard Kitchen in Bayview. “I don’t know anybody that produces the variety she produces. It’s incredible.”
Inside the storage room at Glendale Shepherd, the walls are lined with rows of a litany of aged, semi soft and creamy cheeses. Their Good Food Award winning flagship cheese, Island Brebis, is a smooth and aromatic tomme cheese with a golden rind, aged six to 12 months. Soft cheeses such as their White Cap, a surface ripened soft cheese that blends sweet and tart flavors, has won over many chefs such as Nattress. Glendale Shepherd’s Tallulah, a creamy soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, may be Swanson’s favorite. Or maybe she favors the Island Brebis; she can’t decide.
Swanson says it’s hard to choose a favorite when you like them all.
“I do love it,” Swanson said. “You have to love your work, you have to find something you love and it makes life nice — that’s my philosophy.”
A key to the Swansons’ happiness and the farmstead’s success seems to lie in their connection to the land and their sustainable practices. Lynn Swanson says they are committed to sustainable agricultural practices and it shows in their end product and the state of their picturesque property. She said the farmstead has been supported by the South Whidbey and Seattle area over the years with people buying their food.
Nattress said it isn’t just the quality of Glendale Shepherd’s cheese he likes, but the way the Swansons run their pastures. He knows the impact good conditions can have not only on animals’ milk, but also on the quality of their meat.
“It’s not just the cheese, the lamb we get from them is amazing,” Nattress said. “If you think about all the pieces of the puzzle you need to have a complete picture of the island, having a quality dairy and lamb producer is an incredibly important link to that.”
Glendale Shepherd offers 90 minute farm tours and cheese tasting sessions to give foodies a sample of their cheese-making process and a taste of their farmstead creations. Reservations for tours Monday to Friday are required and cost $20. The farm store and cheese tasting room are regularly open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit http://glendaleshepherd.com/artisan-products.