July 23, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
The pens were empty, immaculate. The last 90 or so sheep had been sold and were living with new owners in southern Maryland, Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. A guy from Minnesota bought about 60, including the majority of the milking ewes and one ram.
The D.C. region’s only cheesemaking sheep dairy had fallen into silence, broken by the occasional birdsong from trees that bordered the fields.
Shepherds Manor Creamery was being liquidated. Colleen and her husband Michael had built the entire cheesemaking operation from scratch after moving there in 2010. They had put it on the market in August 2021 for $1.1 million, complete with the offer of a few months of mentoring, from lambing to cheesemaking. But after a year, no one bit. Some buyers were interested in the 22-acre farm but not the sheep or equipment. So the Histons took it off the market in August 2022 and were selling it off piecemeal.
“There is a very small community of people that do sheep’s milk cheese, and they’re coming and going all the time because people like us … small dairies get burned out, like husbands and wives who have to put so much of their energy into it,” Colleen said, her voice filled with frustration and heartbreak. “We had a passion. And you have to have a passion to be willing to do all the work that we’ve done, to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The number of farms in the United States has dropped dramatically since peaking in 1935 and has continued to decline, albeit more slowly, since 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the 2017 agriculture census indicated an increase in the number of younger and beginning farmers, sheep farms are a tiny subset: Sheep, goats and their products accounted for only 0.3 percent of the $389 billion total U.S. agricultural products sold, USDA data show.
Sheep cheese simply isn’t a strong part of the American palate, experts say, and for U.S. farmers, sheep are more challenging to work with than cows. Sheep produce milk only in the months after giving birth, and U.S. dairy sheep produce less milk than those in Europe.
The Histons’ farm was one of a kind in the D.C. region, said officials from the D.C. and Maryland health departments and Virginia agriculture department. But Colleen and Michael, both 63 years old, were struggling with the work and missing life with loved ones, including their five grandchildren.
“There’s just too much life out there, too many things to do. And Michael’s body has changed forever in the last 12 years,” Colleen said. “He’s in pain all the time. He needs to have a break.”
As Colleen and Michael both tell it, they were suburban kids and knew little about farms, growing up just about a mile apart from each other off Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, Md. But Michael was “bitten by the farm bug” after summers spent at an uncle’s vegetable and tobacco farm in Clinton.
At age 19, he kept stopping in at the Roy Rogers where Colleen worked, and they became a couple. They moved to Mount Airy in 1989 to raise their son and daughter, enrolling them in a 4-H agriculture program and buying their first sheep — meat sheep.
Colleen had always been a foodie, preparing elaborate wine dinners for friends. Framed menus from her evenings hang on the walls in their dining room. Yet she didn’t go to her first farmer’s market until 2004, when visiting her sister in California. There, the Histons struck up a conversation with a cheesemonger and were smitten.
They bought dairy sheep in 2008, and at the end of 2009, bought the farm, with a brick house built in 1835 and a barn that dates to around the same time. They moved with their sheep in the new year, took about a year and a half to construct a building for the dairy operation, and started milking in May 2011 — while still working full-time jobs. She was a financial administrator at a construction company, and he was with a forensic engineering firm, remediating water damage in apartments and homes.
“Michael and I did all the milking ourselves … We’d get up at 3 [a.m.], milk, I’d have a shower and be on the road and be at work in Gaithersburg at 7 a.m. And he went on to D.C. because a lot of his work was downtown,” Colleen said.
Her first cheese was a tomme — a French mountain cheese — from a recipe she made in 2008 in a one-day class in New Jersey at Valley Shepherd Creamery, which aged the cheese for two months, then shipped it to her: “It was delicious. We loved it. So when I made that first year’s cheese in 2011 and tasted it — tasted just like their cheese — I’m like, I did it!”
She took another cheesemaking class in Vermont, went every year to Dairy Sheep Association of North America symposiums and in 2017 went on a tour of sheep dairies in France and Spain. Around her day job and farm chores, she made cheese.
In 2019, she won 1st place from the American Cheese Society for her raw milk feta. She estimated she made about 10,000 pounds of cheese a year, including several varieties of tommes, Colbys, a feta, a mascarpone-like ewe cream and a blue.
“They built something really special on their farm,” Katie Kopsick, owner of Bolivar Bread Bakery in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., wrote in an email. “Colleen’s talent as a cheese maker is unmatched.”
At Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, marketing director Christina Calloway said Colleen was one of their leading local cheese vendors. “To be able to provide locally made sheep’s milk to our guests is a rare opportunity, and we have been so fortunate to have a sheep’s milk maker in our own backyard,” she said.
Financial and physical toll
The Histons ratcheted up their operation. They milked the ewes twice a day, usually from March until October when shorter daylight hours would reduce the milk flow.
Colleen made cheese by night and in their third year she left her job to sell at farmers markets in Baltimore, Bel Air, Olney, near the White House and every Sunday in Dupont Circle. The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, held in May on the Howard County Fairgrounds, was the Histons’ biggest venue.
Colleen said the estimated $200,000 a year they earned on the cheese was just enough to pay the bills and wages for a few hired hands, but they never paid themselves a salary. Michael kept other side hustles to pay for the mortgage and personal expenses.
“We had a passion, and you have to have a passion to be willing to do all the work that we’ve done, to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
The work was hard, especially for Michael, who has struggled with shoulder pain because of two torn rotator cuffs.
They installed cameras in the pens and each spring monitored the pregnant ewes so that if they had difficulty in labor, Michael could head to the barn to assist. One night, Michael said, Colleen couldn’t sleep and came outside to find him laying on the concrete behind a ewe. She asked what he was doing.
“I said, I have no shoulder strength … so this is the way I’ve been doing it for a season and a half,” he said, describing his search for ways to ease the throbbing pain. “I always sleep in the La-Z-Boy, or I’ll change bed to bed to bed to bed … One time I went and slept in the truck because it was the most comfortable chair I could find.”
After 12 years, Michael’s pain and too many missed family events, they called it quits and put the entire dairy farm operation up for sale. When they could not find a buyer, the couple was advised to liquidate the animals and equipment and sell just the farm and its buildings.
The farm went back on the market for $919,000 on April 28. Colleen’s last farmers market was the first Sunday of June, and she sold her last batch of cheese in July to Black Ankle Vineyards and the Inn at Little Washington. The cheesemaking and milking equipment has all been sold, and they plan to have an auction later this summer for the grain bins and the sheep husbandry equipment.
Michael’s next goal is to find a waterfront property for Colleen, somewhere on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In the meantime, they plan to move into the basement of their son’s home, 16 miles away in Finksburg, to spend time with their three grandchildren, including a grandson born in April.
Both still hope to work in agriculture — perhaps teaching or “doing something fun,” Colleen said. “Our hearts are still there.”
As she paused in her chores to look out at the pastures, her eyes welled up: “I already feel difficulties when I walk up here or when I think about all the things that we’re not going to be doing anymore. It took me a couple of months looking out in that barn and seeing nothing in there, not having sheep here — that’s very difficult.”
The fact that no one stepped forward to carry on the dairy, to bring it to its next phase, was particularly rough for the Histons.
“Defeated,” Michael said, his voice breaking, eyes reddening and filling with tears. “We worked so hard, and we have so much to give. Just defeated. I hate feeling that way.”