The ‘Big Cheese’ of Local Cheese

Originally Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013


Being a black sheep isn’t always a bad thing. Especially when it comes to cheese. In a land that celebrates four cheeses, cheese melts and commodity cheese, it’s good to stand up for wholesome goodness and opt out of any and all processed cheese choices permanently.


It’s a story we all want to buy into. It’s about choosing locally made food, meeting your farmer and making a big difference with small choices like cheese — every meal, every day. Start asking — who makes my food, where does it come from and is it better for my body and my planet? Only eat cheese when you know who makes it. (BTW, it tastes better and has more nutrition too!)


That’s what Tom and Nancy Clark of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham decided to do when they designed and built their Shaker-motif-style farm on 60 acres of land in the heartland of agriculture in the Hudson Valley.


This working farm dates back to 1935 and is as bucolic and gracious as any family farm I know. You can buy any of their delicious yogurt flavors or three types of cheese direct from the farm — Camembert (Nancy’s Wheel or Square, a mix of cow/sheep milk), Kinderhook (pure sheep milk) or Blue (Pasteurized Ewe’s Blue or Unpasteurized Shaker Blue) all made with their famed black sheep milk from the herd they raise and 25 employees who make it possible.


Married this year for 50 years, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and their three children have farming in their hearts and Cornell University on their resumes having all graduated from this land grant college in upstate New York. They still look to Cornell for consulting and advice to improve their offers today. Tom told me Cornell is a farmer’s friend indeed and explained his motivation, “Being involved and building a good team that shares and executes ideas is a business that is well run, feels good and is well respected in the marketplace.”


Expertise combined savvy graphics with delicious cheese products that are easily recognized, coveted and loved by consumers (Old Chatham’s infamous green packaging with a silhouetted black sheep was designed by Tom’s brother-in-law Ivan Chermayeff).


Sheep are sheep. Black or white, it is simply a matter of genetics. The black breed at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company are 100 percent east Friesian and a more hearty flock. Even the great-great-granddaughters grazing the grounds today are a mix of black Friesian ewe and a white ram, but the black genes dominate and survive. Visually, the red barns and black free-range sheep on grassy green pastures make a visit to the farm dreamy.


Speaking of dreams, Tom Clark grew up on a farm in Arlington outside of Poughkeepsie and by 10 years of age he raised three sheep which he took to the Dutchess County Fair and won first prize showing the breed. He told me, “I developed a love for animals and my Grandpa let me do whatever I wanted. I drove a tractor at 12 through the hay fields and had a love for farming ever since.”


This led to an education at Cornell College of Agriculture, with studies in animal husbandry, economics and after graduation, a career in private equity in which he is still invested today. But Tom’s passion for farming was already imprinted and in 1993 when the farm became available with a residence, Tom decided to take a leap of faith and purchase the land. He went back to his roots and had five Cornell students take on a project to vet the idea of the area supporting a country inn and restaurant at the farm.


When the answer was yes, they found a local chef who had graduated first in class at the Culinary Institute of America and worked with Alice Waters to call their restaurant home. “We didn’t know what we were doing but quickly gained a great reputation for food and wine and just two years later in 1995 there was a three-month waiting list for a Saturday night table at our farm to table restaurant and B&B,” said Tom.


Even NYC critics came, ate and raved! This prompted the launch of a bakery and first class treatment for all guests and food enthusiasts with cheese courses for dessert and black sheep cookies appearing for turn down service before bed.


In 1999 the restaurant graciously closed so the Clark’s could return their focus to what they did best — make award-winning cheese. And win they did. More than 50 awards line the tasting room since they started with NASFT Oscars for food, State Fair first prizes in cheese making from various states and master cheese makers.


Consumers agreed and the timing was right which helped their products sell nationally to retailers like Whole Foods Market and Wegmans. This small family farm and creamery became a successful brand in the yogurt and cheese categories.


In New York City, Murray’s Cheese collaborates with the farm, “taking young, fat wheels of sheep’s milk cheese from Old Chatham Sheepherding in the Hudson Valley and giving them a Corsican accent, with a coating of rosemary, lemon thyme, marjoram, elderberries and hop flowers. The cheese, called Hudson Flower, then ages for about a month in Murray’s caves,” Florence Fabricant reported last month in the New York Times.


Nancy Clark is involved with formulation and flavor for development of many products — and is also a master of lunch time feeding Tom farm fresh food daily at their original B&B on the property they now call home. Tom Clark is the financial planner and has a great sales acumen.


Unable to supply all of the fresh sheep milk they need as they grow, Tom looked to the Amish region to supplement their shortage of up to 35 percent of raw sheep’s milk and supplied 13 Amish farmers with more than $350,000 of income in just nine short months of sourcing to satisfy the challenge of sourcing fresh milk 365 days a year required to make their popular sheep milk products.


Primed for expansion and growth, this is all good news for the creamery. This month they welcome a new VP of operations, Matthew Ranieri, Cornell PhD to develop new products and optimize operations with Todd Pontius their valued creamery manager, Travis Burrows their farm manager and the many employees who have been with the Clark family working the farm for a decade.


And a successful business it is. Last week while in NYC, Tom and Nancy saw a Fresh Direct truck drive by with a billboard featuring an Old Chatham product: Ewe’s Blue. It read: “From Farm to Ewe. We support local.” You should too.


It’s that easy. Make food choices that are more than labeled healthy and fresh. Ask questions. Meet your farmer and understand your role in fixing our broken food system. It tastes better and it’s easy to do. Imagine the change that will transpire from that one choice every day if we all simply opt out of cheesy alternatives.


Shop local and meet a farmer like Tom Clark. You too will become obsessed with local farms and the goodness they bring.


Copyright © 2013 Columbia-Greene Media