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Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm Works
to Create New Dairying Alternative

Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm, LLC, is a work in progress, developing a sheep dairying model that can be a realistic option for Upstate New York farmers.

The Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm is owned by Bee Tolman and her husband, Simon Hurley, and managed by Tolman. The business, located in Cazenovia, N.Y., became fully operational in April 2000.

The sheep dairy sits on a leased 300-acre farm in Chittenango, N.Y., and now includes 250 East Friesian cross dairy ewes and a purpose-built sheep-milking parlor. The main goal of the farm is to be milking 250 highly productive ewes and producing over 75,000 pounds of Grade A milk in 2003. Tolman Sheep Dairy

The Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm is located in an area of Central New York where the (cow) dairy industry is struggling and seeing a steady decline in cow numbers, with no real alternatives emerging. In fact, Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm sits on a farm property where cows were milked from 1903 to 1997.

“Dairy farm numbers in Madison County (where the dairy is located) and neighboring Herkimer and Oneida Counties, have dropped by about 4 percent every year for the last half-dozen years,” Tolman said. “Most exiting farms are small farms, averaging 62 milking cows and operating on less than 100 acres.”

Tolman said she believes that Upstate New York is optimally suited for the development of the sheep dairying industry because of its available land base, its existing dairy agriculture infrastructure, and especially its close proximity to the largest discretionary marketplace in the world.

“The sheep business is not generally a financially viable option for Upstate New York farmers looking for an alternative to milking cows,” Tolman said. “The addition of sheep milk as a revenue source, however, might make a small flock of about 250 ewes a more appealing option for an individual farmer.”

Unlike the Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm, most sheep dairy farmers in the Northeast also process and direct-market their own cheese. That model may be attractive to those inclined to produce and promote “farmstead”-style products from small, part-time farm operations.

Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm, however, sells its raw sheep milk to the Old Chatham Shepherding Company, a New York State cheese manufacturer.Tolman Sheep Dairy

“We are supplying a raw material — sheep milk — to a niche market that has an enormous demand for its premium-priced product,” Tolman said. “The domestic market for sheep-milk products is extremely strong, particularly in the Northeast. There has been considerable interest in this enterprise among (cow) dairy farmers in the region, many of whom are on the lookout for alternatives to traditional dairying.”

From a farm business perspective, Tolman believes that Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm model is attractive because of its modest start-up costs ($100,000), its modest annual operating costs ($70,000), its potential for return on assets, and the strong market for its products. And from a dairy farmer’s perspective, the Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm model might be attractive because of its location on an ex-dairy farm, its use of standard machinery and feeding systems, and its easy conversion of dairy buildings and facilities.

Tolman is well-suited to take on the venture. She began her agricultural career as a shepherd in Scotland in 1982, followed by shepherding jobs for eight years in New England. In 1990, She left shepherding to pursue a Masters degree in Animal Science at Virginia Tech.

Tolman and Hurley moved to New Zealand in 1993 to capitalize on a career opportunity for Hurley. While in New Zealand, Tolman worked for 18 months as managing editor of a regional farming newspaper, for 12 months as a research technician on Massey University’s sheep and beef farms, and finally, happily, she spent 30 months as a (cow) dairy farm worker. She and Hurley relocated to Upstate New York in 1998 to be closer to their families.

Tolmans’ farm experience has included both extensive, low-input systems in Scotland and New Zealand, and intensive, high-input systems in New Hampshire and Vermont. She said this helped her appreciate the profit limits placed on Northeast livestock agriculture by the high costs of feed and capitalization. This has made her determined to focus on the low-cost production of sheep milk and market lambs.

When Tolman learned of the NLPA Sheep & Goat Fund she decided it was worth a try to get a loan, and in September 2000, the NLPA Sheep and Goat Fund Committee entered a loan agreement with Tolman Sheep Dairy to use toward the purchase of state-of-the-art milking equipment.

“Getting loans from community ag lenders was difficult,” she said. “We did find a supportive local bank to finance part of the start-up costs, but at a fairly high interest rate because sheep dairying is such an unknown. NLPA allowed us to refinance, which helped a lot.”

In addition to the dairy, Tolman Sheep Dairy Farm sells many lambs for meat consumption - accounting for about 50 percent of the farm revenues. Tolman said she sold 450 lambs last year, about 97 percent of which went to the local Bosnian community either directly or through a contact - without packers or breakers.

“The Bosnians represent a substantial market in our immediate area,” she said. “They love lamb and prefer to serve it for special occasions or family gatherings.”

“Service really counts with them, too,” she said. “Over the past couple of years I’ve learned what type of lamb they prefer, and my husband and I have learned a bit of their language — enough to greet them or commiserate about the weather.”

Tolman said she feels a bit like a guinea pig right now in regard to her farm business model.

“If I can make it work it will be a good model for those producers looking for a decent alternative to the marginally viable dairy business,” she said. “The sheep dairy business hasn’t created a return at this point, but I’m working on it. These things take time.”


Submitted by Bee Tolman and Melissa Schneider

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