Lynn Swanson is a longtime farmer who loves to grow, cook, preserve and enjoy good food.
It stands to reason that she’d approach making sheep milk cheese with the same passion and careful research that she’s put into her family’s farm in Glendale on South Whidbey.
Lynn and Stan Swanson have lived on the 200-acre farm for 25 years, and before that Stan’s parents had owned the farm since the 1940s.
Now a third generation is farming as well. The Swanson’s 23-year-old son Erik, a graduate of the Greenbank Farm Agricultural Training Program, has taken over the sheep dairy.
They’ve raised a mixture of European East Friesian and Lacaune dairy sheep on the hilly acreage overlooking Saratoga Passage for about 10 years. But only in the past few years have the Swansons actively pursued the goal of making sheep milk cheese to sell commercially.
Two years ago, Stan and Lynn took a month-long tour to view other dairy sheep operations in Idaho, Oregon, California and Washington to learn about the best equipment and methods for sheep-milk cheese making.
“We wanted to not make too many mistakes starting out,” Lynn Swanson said. “As you age, you tend to do more research before trying something new.”
She had been making sheep milk cheese in her own kitchen for family use, but wanted to produce a marketable product. She researched recipes, and hired a consultant before she settled on one type of cheese: Island Brebis, a whole raw sheep’s milk tomme that is hard-aged three to six months.
“Everything I’ve done has been toward the goal of perfecting that one cheese,” Swanson said. “Island Brebis has a sweet, nutty, rich flavor that gets better as it ages, and it keeps a long time.”
The new “cheese house” at the farm, created in what once was a horse barn, gleams with new stainless steel equipment and tiled walls and floors. Family and friends helped with the construction work.
Swanson chronicled their progress on the farm’s Facebook page and at glendaleshepherds.com. They received Grade A Dairy certification from the state in 2011, and the new cheese house passed the final state inspection in May.
The next morning, she poured 32 gallons of fresh sheep’s milk into the new warming vat and began creating her first batch of Island Brebis.
The milk in the hot-water-warmed vat must slowly reach the desired temperature before Swanson adds bacteria that multiplies and acidifies. When the perfect pH is achieved, she adds rennet and waits for curds to form.
Once the whey has been drained from the curds, the cheese is packed into cheese hoops and pressed for several hours. It sits overnight, after which the wheels are freed from the hoops, weighed and packed in salt brine for 24 hours.
Finally, the cheese wheels are placed on stainless steel shelves in the cooling room, which is kept at 52 degrees and 90 percent humidity. As the cheese ages in the cooling room, the rind turns golden brown, while the cheese becomes pale yellow.
The aging process takes a minimum of three months.
“Aging is a flavor-development process, “ Swanson said. “Raw milk cheese develops a different profile as it ages.”
Now that Swanson has her state certification, she is making cheese every other day, stockpiling it in the cooler so it will be ready for market by early fall. By then, the family will have stopped milking the 26 dairy ewes that will be pregnant with next spring’s crop of lambs.
Swanson likes the seven months on, five months off schedule of running a sheep-milk dairy.
“Lambing season is my favorite time of year,” she said with a smile. “I love it. But we do pull a lot of all-nighters.”
As soon as lambing season was over this year, finishing the cheese-house project became a priority, to coincide with the weaning of the lambs and the beginning of the milking season.
In season, Erik Swanson herds six ewes at a time into the stanchions of the milking parlor. Milking and filtering the raw milk takes about 90 minutes morning and night. He transports the milk in a golf cart up the hill to the cheese house.
Swanson keeps busy herding and feeding 16 ewe lambs in one lower pasture, while also monitoring the meat lambs in another pasture. The farm’s sheep are fed local hay from Coupeville, along with barley and pasture grass.
Lynn started selling Island Brebis at the Langley and Bayview farmers markets in late August and will continue until the market season ends. Island Brebis is also available here on Whidbey at Bayleaf in Coupeville and Oak Harbor, and in Seattle at Calf & Kid Artisan Cheese in the Melrose Market Building on Capitol Hill.
Swanson beams with pride when she’s working in her new creamery.
“I think we’re the only sheep-milk dairy on the island, and there’s only about half a dozen sheep-milk dairies in the state,” she said.