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Couple building unique mobile operation, sheep herd east of Petaluma

[caption id="attachment_24122" align="alignleft" width="288" caption="A future provider of Weirauch artisan cheese frolics near Sonoma Mountain."][/caption]

PETALUMA –  Joining the growing community of North Bay artisan cheese makers are Joel and Carleen Weirauch, who have applied for a dairy processing permit and intend to make farmstead sheep milk cheese.

The Weirauchs have leased 60 acres east of Petaluma and are building a flock and a unique mobile dairy operation from scratch.

Once in operation, the dairy and creamery will have cost about $100,000.

“We’re very close to starting construction of our mobile creamery, which should take about three months. We hope to make our first cheese by the end of the year,” said Mr. Weirauch.

That will be a cow’s milk cheese using milk purchased from a local organic dairy, he said. Sheep are seasonal givers of milk, during the spring and early summer, so the Weirauchs will make both types. Combined volume will be less than 1,000 pounds a month, he said.

[caption id="attachment_24121" align="alignright" width="360" caption="The Weirauch flock is a special breed of dairy sheep."][/caption]

Although the 60 acres they leased is certified organic, the couple will go with an Animal Welfare Approved certification rather than organic.

AWA means the sheep are pastured but doesn’t preclude the use of antibiotics for a sick animal, as long as her milk is taken out of production until the drug wears off completely, he said.

The Weirauchs have been growing their flock since 2004 and have about 50 ewes and a couple of rams. Male lambs are sold for meat.

The breed is descended from German Friesian sheep that, along with Friesian cattle, are prolific givers of rich milk but don’t thrive in industrial operations nor in hot conditions.

“They’re really happy right now with the cool summer,” said Mr. Weirauch.

He traveled to France in the early 1990s and apprenticed to a maker of goat, sheep and cow's milk cheeses.

“My intention was to make goat cheese, but the taste of sheep cheeses changed my mind,” he said.

Roquefort and Manchego are two well-known sheep milk cheeses.

Bellwether Farms in Petaluma and Barinaga Farms in Marshall make cheese from sheep’s milk, which has higher butterfat content than cow’s milk.

“The local cheese making community has been very welcoming. And California FarmLink [a nonprofit dedicated to preserving small family farms] was a great help finding the land,” he said.

The land is leased from Paul and Dawn Dolcini, who also have a farm operation.

The Weirauchs hope that cheese making in the North Bay can someday acquire the status of Vermont and New York cheese making regions, which have their own cheese councils.

“It would be great to have a local cheese guild. It would make a perfect pairing with the local wine industry,” said Mr. Weirauch.

Mr. Weirauch said it has been a tough road to secure government permission for the unique mobile dairy.

“The permitting process has been horrendous,” he said. “We’re dealing with seven different agencies, including the county departments of water quality control, agriculture, housing, building and a few state agencies as well. Had I known the complexity of building a mobile dairy, I may have gone about things differently.”

However, if the couple successfully threads the bureaucratic maze, which includes paying for a $15,000 use permit, they’ll have something new: a dairy and cheese making facility with no permanent structures that can be moved literally to new pastures, if necessary.

For more information visit www.weirauchfarms.com.

CORRECTION, Aug. 23, 2010: The Weirauchs are going for an Animal Welfare Approved certification. The land is leased from the Dolcini family. The original story included incorrect information.