A cross-country move is daunting in and of itself—but what if you were also starting a new (and not necessarily profitable) business at the same time? And what if the venture made you responsible for 30 goats?
That was the situation Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase found themselves in when they relocated from Oakland, Calif., to Nettle Meadow Farm in Thurman, N.Y., in 2005. The women were lawyers out West, but that “just wasn’t blowing our skirts up,” Lambiase says, laughing. The couple had been experimenting with home cheesemaking and decided to try their luck at taking the hobby full-time at a farm almost 3,000 miles away. There was no turning back.
Sheila Flanagan (left) and Lorraine Lambiase hold kids.
Used as a farm sporadically since the 1700s, Nettle Meadow was in desperate need of a face-lift when the pair purchased it. The circa-1898 historic barn that initially caught Flanagan and Lambiase’s attention when they were scoping out properties online was becoming more dilapidated by the day, and it was difficult for them to find someone willing to renovate—not modernize—the building. Today, the barn is restored to its full glory, complete with its original, cathedral-like gambrel roof and signatures scribbled by teens in the 1920s preserved on the walls. While the ground level houses an animal sanctuary, the second floor is rented for community events from weddings and concerts to local fundraisers.
Settling into the community was quite an adjustment for Bay Area expats Flanagan and Lambiase. Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains and bordered by the Hudson River, Thurman is a sleepy hamlet of 1,200. And as in most small towns, locals are quick to notice new folks— especially if they’re different.
To wit: Eyebrows rose when the women bought guard llamas instead of rifles to protect the farm. “[The residents of Thurman] don’t care if you’re gay,” Lambiase says. “But they do care if you don’t like guns.”
The second floor of Nettle Meadow Farm’s circa-1898 resotred barn.
A Place for Everyone—Ghosts and Goats Included
Not only are Lambiase and Flanagan offbeat compared to their fellow Thurman citizens—Nettle Meadow deviates from other farms, too. For one thing, employees who work in the cheese room are convinced that it’s haunted. They’ve heard a man talking and a small child laughing, and have smelled pipe tobacco and rose perfume. (“We think it’s a whole family,” says cheese room supervisor Stephanie Hitchcock.) It’s not a stretch to believe, considering the cheese room is as old as the farm itself; it was originally used for buttermaking. Still, Flanagan is skeptical—understandable, since her house is a mere stone’s throw from the underground aging space.
Haunted (or not) cheese room aside, another important factor sets Nettle Meadow apart from other creameries: It’s a no-kill operation. Unwanted baby animals are a by-product of the cheesemaking process, as pregnancies are necessary to keep up a steady milk flow. Most farms auction off extra babies, and that’s what Lambiase and Flanagan did at first. But it started to take an emotional toll: the stress of moving the animals and the anxiety about where they would end up was just too much. Other creameries slaughter extra animals to make artisanal meats, but that wasn’t an option for Flanagan and Lambiase. “We’re not criticizing how others farm—those who sell goat meat do it humanely, but that’s not where our heart is,” Flanagan explains.
Instead, the women give away surplus kids and lambs born at Nettle Meadow to new owners on the condition that the babies won’t be used for meat. Once elderly animals are past their milking days, they spend the rest of their lives in comfort on the “Jersey Shore,” Nettle Meadow’s sanctuary, which is also home to rescued barnyard creatures of all stripes.
“After they put in their eight to 10 years, they deserve retirement like anyone else,” Flanagan says. “If you treat them well, their milk will be of higher quality. Each year we have a healthier herd.”
Interspecies mingling is common at Nettle Meadow, especially at the sanctuary.
All in the Family
Lady Gaga, K.D. Lang, Stevie Nicks—no, this isn’t the lineup for an upcoming music festival. Rather, the rock star names belong to residents of the “Jersey Shore.” Most have ailments (the motley crew includes a blind sheep and a goat with crooked front legs), and all receive the care they need—and then some.
“Retirees get the best pasture,” says Flanagan, noting that “best pasture” doesn’t mean rolling hills and lush grass but nettle plants and thick blackberry bushes. “The nastier it is, the more they like it,” she says.
The working animals (around 350 goats and 60 dairy sheep) enjoy an equally decadent diet composed of organic hay, grains, wild herbs, raspberry leaf, garlic, and kelp. Baby animals are kept on a neighboring property and are all bottle-fed by hand. It’s a formidable task: One Thanksgiving, Lambiase and Flanagan were so busy tending to kids and lambs they didn’t eat turkey until 1 a.m.—hunched over the kitchen sink, no less.
Lambiase and Flanagan stagger breeding at Nettle Meadow to provide fresh milk year-round, but try to avoid births in January and February due to the farm’s northeastern, mountainous location. Females aren’t bred until they are at least one year old, and they’re also given plenty of time off (generally three to five months) between kiddings. These practices are part of Nettle Meadow’s bottom line: animal welfare.
“It’s better for them, but not necessarily better for us,” Lambiase says. The same goes for the breeding process itself. You won’t find any lab equipment or frozen semen sample—it’s all au naturel at Nettle Meadow. The women often get an earful of the birds and the bees, thanks to baby monitors set up to alert them when pregnant females go into labor. “It’s like goat pornography all night,” Flanagan jokes.
A young kid is bottle-fed by hand.
Consistency Is Key
Unsurprisingly, Lambiase and Flanagan extend the same level of concern for the welfare of their animals as they do to the quality of their cheese. Kunik, a rich goat’s milk bloomy rind made with Jersey cow’s cream, is the farm’s most popular offering—Esquire dubbed it “the sexiest cheese in the USA” in 2010.
Other aged cheeses from Nettle Meadow include Nettle Peaks, a goat’s milk pyramid coagulated naturally with nettles from the farm; Crane Mountain, a firm, semi-aged chèvre named after one of the highest summits in the Adirondacks; and the newest creation, Penny’s Pride, a nutty, mold-ripened firm cheese produced from sheep’s and cow’s milk. Nettle Meadow is also revered for its fresh chèvre and fromage blanc in 13 flavors.
An assortment of Nettle Meadow’s mold-ripened cheeses.
Lambiase and Flanagan split cheesemaking duties, with Lambiase taking on fresh cheeses and Flanagan responsible for semi-aged offerings.
“If I try to make chèvre, I beat it up,” Flanagan says. “[It ends up being] mozzarella. Lorraine makes cheese like a baker—with exact measurements and a delicate hand.” Flanagan, however, relies on intuition more than math, and tweaks the recipe for each semi-aged cheese depending on the season and milk batch. “It would be hard to steal our semi-aged recipes,” she says, “they’re all stuck in my head.”
Consistency is certainly a motto at Nettle Meadow, second only to animal care. For many years, Kunik was made with animal rennet, which produced a reliably delicious cheese but didn’t sit well with Flanagan and Lambiase. The pair struggled with switching over to microbial rennet, as many of the vegetarian rennets they tested caused unacceptable irregularities—a less creamy taste and rind discoloration, to name two. Eventually they found Kunik’s organic microbial rennet soulmate, resulting in a 100 percent vegetarian cheese.
The sanctuary at Nettle Meadow Farm.
A Personal Touch
Nettle Meadow’s cheeses are distributed in 40 states, but the largest variety is available at the source: a small shop connected to the make-room. Tours of the property are also offered on Saturdays—visitors are often surprised
by Nettle Meadow’s modest size and small team (just 11 full-time and 4 part-time employees, plus Flanagan and Lambiase).
“We’re just starting to tag ears—we used to know all [the animals] by name,” Lambiase says of the farm’s 600-strong herd. There’s no pipeline to transport milk and only a small bulk storage tank. And, cheeses are made, salted, molded, and wrapped by human hands. “I talk to every single piece of cheese,” says Hitchcock, the cheese room supervisor.
This approach does limit the amount of cheese Nettle Meadow is able to produce, which is sometimes frustrating for the owners. “It’s not terrible to be popular, but it is terrible to let down your customers and not be able to fill orders,” Flanagan says. “We do it all by hand, for better or for worse.”
Meeting demand means that Flanagan and Lambiase don’t take vacations, but it’s a sacrifice they’re glad to make. “Happy goats, great cheese—that’s what we strive for,” Flanagan says. “We may not have a lot of money in our savings account, but when I look at [the animals], I feel good about what we do.”