Shaker-style buildings gleam at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.
Shaker-style buildings gleam at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. (Francesca Olsen / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

CHATHAM, N.Y. -- The Old Chatham Sheepherding Company sits on 400 acres that are about as bucolic as you can get. Its long driveway is between two swaths of open pasture, which are dotted by grazing sheep, mostly white but some black, like the award-winning cheese factory's packaging.

This is not a family farm as much as it is a business; no children grew up here, doing chores from the time they could walk. The owners, Tom and Nancy Clark, do not milk sheep or make cheese. They run the largest sheep dairy in the United States.

They employ 20 people, and their products have won a list of awards from all over the world. Tom's income once came from an investment firm that still bears his name -- Duvin, Clark and Co.

He does have an agricultural background -- when he was growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., his grandfather had a small farm, where Tom raised sheep and won blue ribbons, staying nights at the Dutchess County Fair, which is a rite of passage for so many Dutchess farm kids.

"I fell in love with agriculture, farming the land, and sheep especially," he said.

He followed that with ag school at Cornell, switched over and got his MBA, served in the Army and then entered the business world, where he did reasonably well. When he and Nancy hatched the idea to raise sheep, they had a small farm in Old Chatham already.

"But in the early ‘90s I wanted to do something more significant with sheep," he said.

The Clarks started milking in 1994. They initially wanted to produce meat for restaurants in New York City, but they saw the value a dairy could add. Then, "no one was doing it on a larger scale," Tom said.

They initially sold milk to a Stuyvesant, N.Y., dairy and shifted to cheesemaking on their farm, with its Shaker and Shaker-style sea of red barns, in 1997.

Tom said the Clarks were fortunate to start this business at a time when stores like Whole Foods and specialty stores were really gaining steam.

"That gave us a market, and we've grown with those companies," he said.

The challenge for this business has been making sure the cheese, the majority of which is not aged, gets to its destination with ample time for consumers to buy it. It's fresh, which means it has a shorter shelf life -- 56 days for yogurt, to four to eight weeks for most cheeses, several months for blue cheese. This has led to methods like a pre-order program in partnership with Whole Foods; a company representative calls stores across the country to secure orders and check expiration dates.

Clark said an eventual goal is to make aged, European-style cheeses too, which requires a big aging facility due to the already-high demand for products.

"We will do it someday," he said. "It's a question of getting enough sheep's milk, too."

Between 40 and 50 percent of the milk is produced by the company's 1,600 sheep in Old Chatham; the rest is purchased, much of it from Amish farms in Fonda, N.Y. They occasionally use milk from Wisconsin.

Anyone would be proud of this cheese empire, but it wasn't a dream or a goal in the beginning.

"I didn't see it getting as big as it is today, or as broad in distribution," Tom said. "It's been a challenge to meet the demands. Very few companies like ours have the capacity to do what we do."

Cheese finder ...

Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. distributes throughout the U.S. -- Whole Foods is a big partner, along with Wegman's, and locally, Guido's Fresh Marketplace, Rubiner's and the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington. They serve as many as 800 retailers, said Allyson Brennan, the company's national sales and marketing manager.

I usually buy some Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. cheese for Hudson Valley cheese plates, which I like to make for out-of-town guests. The cheese is truly fantastic -- there are several varieties of sheep's milk Camembert, plus fresh ricotta (not on a cheese plate!) and the unique Kinderhook Creek, which is creamy and easily spread on a crostini, with a sharp, deep-tasting rind, which I am crazy about in a cheese. There are also five flavors of yogurt, from plain to blueberry to ginger. Imagine the size of facilities needed to produce this variety for hundreds of stores across the country -- then think bigger.