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Profiles of Farmers

In Profiles of Farmers, I'll introduce you to people who produce incredible food using sustainable practices.

Bellwether Farms, Valley Ford, California

When Cindy Callahan first bought sheep, she just wanted a quick way to 'mow the lawn.' It was the 1980s and, after returing from a career as a nurse, Cindy and her husband, Ed, bought a former dairy in coastal Sonoma County. The temperate climate made for a gorgeous green pastures.

The business began with the sale of spring lambs, and this is how I met Cindy. As the chef for an event at Chalk Hill Winery, I was asked to roast one of her whole lambs on an outdoor spit. Despite the fact that I'd never roasted a whole lamb before, the meal turned out perfectly, in large part because of her great product!

Cindy and Ed turned their attention to cheese, after a friend casually suggested that they milk their sheep. With customary enthusiasm, the couple traveled through Tuscany and Umbria to learn traditional cheese making methods.

That initial quest continues to inspire Bellwether Farms' products today, especially in their buttery Crescenza and famously smooth Ricotta. They have also created several original cheeses, most notably the full-flavored San Andreas and their blue-ribbon cow's milk Carmody.

To get the special flavor and quality of their sheep's milk cheese, the Callahans use East Friesian sheep, a Northern European breed. These sheep produce more milk than other breeds, but still, that's not a lot. They provide milk for eight months after lambs are weaned in the spring, and daily production is only about a half galloon per animal. What's more, East Friesans can only be raised successfully under non-intensive conditions, so the Bellwether flock necessarily stays small and on pasture. Their precious milk is used to make the farm's signature San Andreas and Pepato cheeses. The other sheeps milk and cows milk cheeses, are made from milk purchased from other small local dairies.

Now in her seventies, Cindy has passed her skills on to her son Liam. Today, he personally makes all of the cheese the farm produces. His wife, Diana, is involved on the farm, too, and Cindy continues to look after the sheep, even helping to deliver lambs in the spring. Bellwether Farms cheeses now grace the tables of fine restaurants across the country, something no one ever imagined. As a chef, I find the flavors and textures exceptional. What I admire is that in all this time, and after so many changes, they are still a family farm.

To try Bellwether Farms cheeses, visit their retail outlet in Healdsburg's Plaza Farms market, or go to www.bellwetherfarms.com.