Thursday, February 28, 2008

Willow Farm Interview

Willow - you want to fall in love with her name- she's built a beautiful sheep farm in Vermont out of unused land. I met her recently in NYC, at Jimmy' s No.43. She was in one night with a crowd of young, hip cheese mongers: Sashi from Marlow and Sons and Anne from Saxelby Cheesemonger.

Willow, what were the first products you raised/ grew on your farm?

Well, my background is 10 generations of beef on one of the largest cattle ranches in the USA. I wanted to raise animals but needed cash flow while we built fencing and a house to live in on our abandoned dairy farmland that we bought. So we put in several acres of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries as well as perennial flowers and herbs. We also operated a 5 acre diversified vegetable garden to sell locally to co-ops and farmers market. Back when we did 3 markets.

When did you become a certified organic farm and why?

We were organic from this farm's inception in 1991. It is a philosophy and not motivated by money. In fact, our products actually have always been priced on par with conventional ones. We wanted to raise our animals in a healthy manner, without GMO's in their feed or routine antibiotic use. Also with an eye toward selecting a herd for our farm that was stronger and hardier thru selection and without use of crutches like antibiotics. Remember the old adage? Only the strongest survive? There is certainly no guarantee that GMO's are not in anyone's food but if you are buying organic feed (and I mean grain here) it's very strictly enforced. We buy all our hay locally and some grain as well. And also recently dropped our certification since it became too costly. We still manage organically and use herbal medicine when necessary with not only our family but also our animals. In organic dairying, it is all about managing a herd for prevention. Prevention of sickness and disease. It's very management intensive and not for every body. One must keep detailed records on each and every animal and observe the herd over time and make adjustments.

What is your favorite season of the year on the farm?

Wow, that's a good question. I love summer. I am originally from Hawaii so I think I gravitate to warmer weather. Vermont falls are definitely gorgeous though.

How many sheep do you have, on average? How many did you start with?

We have on average about 100 ewes and their lambs and breeding rams at any one time. What alot of folks don't know though is that we have also been milking and making cow's milks cheeses since 2000. I never thought I would allow cows on this farm, being tired of them growing up, but we got some beef cows when my father died. We raised grass fed beef like our ranch for a number of years and just recently downsized to just our dairy cows. Oh-back to the question-we started with 8 sheep to milk and build the herd. Then we also had to build fence, a house and a barn after ours burned just 5 years after we started. So really we should have called this farm "Build-on Farm". It seems continual! We'll get there one day...

That's it. Pretty simple. The NYC cheese people are really excited about your products! Keep up the good work.

To learn more about Willow Hill Farm and cheese, visit the following websites and