If you ask Heather Steyn about sheep, don’t expect a short answer and if your question is about sheep’s milk cheese, expect to sit a spell.
Heather’s and her husband Phillip’s immersion into artisanal cheesemaking began as a hobby at their ranch in Colorado. Although they were busy with their careers as veterinarians, they found time during the long winters to pursue their interest in cheese production from sheep milk and the science behind it.
“Phillip and I enjoyed all aspects of being veterinarians, from the dogs and cats we treated to our hobby sheep farm that produced lamb meat and sheep milk for making cheese,” Heather says.”
When Heather and Phillip took early retirement in 2017, they decided to expand on their Colorado hobby in the Andes of Ecuador. They brought their passion as sheep and livestock producers and created a philanthropic project to help the local community. Today, the 70-acre Verde Oveja farm, in the hills overlooking Cotacachi, is the only commercial sheep operation in Ecuador utilizing the products from sheep production, including cheese, yogurt, milk, meat, wool, and hide products.
Bambi, the farm’s beloved pet Jersey cow, provides milk for some traditional cow cheeses like sharp cheddar and cottage cheese.
Verde Oveja, by the way, means green sheep, emphasizing the farm’s care for the environment and the owners’ hands-on stewardship.
Verde Oveja’s mission
The broad scope of the Verde Oveja project encompasses both the people and animals in the indigenous community of San Antonio del Punge. The purpose of the philanthropy is three-fold, Heather explains. Verde Oveja wants to teach the science of animal husbandry, using sheep as livestock production animals, genetic selection of high quality animals, veterinary skills associated with sheep, nutrition, and the art of sheep cheesemaking, all with animal welfare at its core.
Secondly, their goal is to provide secure, permanent jobs for members of the community that focus on learning skills in the sheep industry and empowering them to enhance their quality of life.
Finally, Verde Oveja invests 100% of proceeds from the sale of its products to benefit the entire community – for example, one project is to provide potable water for all the families in San Antonio del Punge. Currently the community only has a small, contaminated water source with no filtration capabilities.
“We are proud to be teaching the local people about sheep and how they can be a highly productive livestock animal, creating the highest quality cheese products available, making a name for our local community, and investing in community projects. We are grateful that our community embraces the project and is proud of the work they are doing. We want every client that purchases products from Verde Oveja to know that they are directly contributing to the well-being of the indigenous people,” Heather says.
In addition, Verde Oveja is providing life skills workshops for residents. The Steyns have hosted training in such areas as financial literacy, including how to set up a household budget and manage a bank account. “Unfortunately, the indigenous are not taught basic life skills in school regarding finances, and without these skills, even with jobs, it is hard for them to create a better life,” Heather explains. The Steyns have also helped the employees’ children, providing access to computers and supplies for school.
She adds: “We were fortunate to have had a good education and successful veterinary business careers in the U.S. and we have decided to share our skills and resources with the people around us. This is our home now and we want to contribute to it.”
Verde Oveja currently employees eight full-time and several part-time workers. The families of the two managing staff (farm manager and head cheese manager) live on the farm, in houses built by the Steyns. “We thoroughly enjoy having the children of these families growing up on the farm, learning all of the farm skills their parents are utilizing, and having a positive influence in their lives. The children are always involved in handling the new born lambs, which they love”, says Phillip.
Just as important as providing secure and permanent jobs, Heather says, is offering training and guidance to the employees where each employee is fully empowered in a special, unique skill. “We hire local people, cross-train them and then put each of them in charge of a specific area of responsibility. It is much more than simply giving them jobs; our intention is to give them valuable skills which they can apply in all areas of their life.”
Recently, when Heather and Phillip were away with a health emergency, the farm and cheese operation didn’t miss a beat. “Everything was operating smoothly when we got back. It was almost as if we had never left and we believe this was due to the sense of responsibility, education, and ownership that our employees have. We were so proud of them!”
Just as important as having a highly trained, competent team, is providing training for the humane handling of the animals with a focus on animal welfare. “From day one of an employee starting on the farm, we teach the importance of handling the animals with respect and love,” says Heather. “Partly because of culture, poverty, and poor education, many livestock animals in Ecuador suffer neglect and abuse. We are demonstrating a different way of gentle handling techniques, high quality nutrition, free ranging animals in large pastures, and appropriate veterinary care. Our dream is that these skills are not only practiced on our farm, but this knowledge carries over to the larger community. We know that animals that are well taken care of lead higher quality lives and are more productive.”
In March, Verde Oveja was recognized for its superior treatment of its animals, becoming the first farm in South America to receive the animal welfare certification from the U.K.-based A Greener World organization. They are also pending certification by A Greener World for their sustainable farming practices.
So what’s so special about sheep milk cheeses?
“The most important thing is that sheep’s milk is healthier and has less impact on cholesterol levels in people, it is low in lactose, high in protein, and is highly digestible for people with lactose intolerance. Sheep milk has a smooth, buttery consistency, with a mildly sweet flavor which makes for versatile cheesemaking. Sheep milk doesn’t leave a ‘sheepy’ flavor in cheese products like you find in goat milk cheeses.”
Sheep are also much better for the environment and produce less methane gas than cows, she points out, making for more efficient use of pastures and requiring less feed than cattle on a pound-for-pound basis. Just as important, sheep milk produces double the amount of yield in the cheesemaking process.
For more about the benefit of sheep milk and sheep cheese, click here.
Verde Oveja ships its cheese and meat products throughout Ecuador. “We started selling at the local farmer’s market and making deliveries around Cotacachi and Quito but as people heard about us and the demand increased, we started working with transport services that deliver our products overnight anywhere in the country. We have several customers in Cuenca and are looking to add many more. Having a first-class online store makes it easy for customers to order, exactly like North American and European online ordering!”
For product information and how to order, click here.
A lot happens at Verde Oveja besides the commercial operations. Upgrading and managing the pastures is an ongoing project. “When we bought the property in 2015, it had been over-farmed for crops like quinoa and barley, and the nutrients had leached out of the soil,” Heather says. “We are still rejuvenating the pastures, eliminating old growth, replacing it with a mix of grasses and legumes that enrich the soil and provide optimal nutrition to our flock of approximately 200 grazing sheep as well as reforestation close to 1,000 trees. We are growing our own alfalfa as well as creating our own balanced rations on the farm.”
In keeping with the farm’s environmental mission, the Steyns have installed an industrial sized PV solar system and the solar panels provide shelter for the sheep. This farm is one of the first solar systems to sell energy back to the electric grid in Ecuador. The farm also has its own water purification system, since clean potable water is essential for cheese production and livestock care.
The cheesemaking operation at Verde Oveja begins in the milking parlor, which accommodates about 50 sheep for twice-daily machine milkings. The cheese is prepared and aged in a two-room factory next door, one room for production, the second is a specially designed cheese cave for storage and aging that is temperature and humidity controlled. Although some of the furnishings and equipment are manufactured locally, most are imported from Europe and the U.S.
Verde Oveja has achieved the highest level of food factory certification, BUENAS PRÁCTICAS DE MANUFACTURA, in Ecuador. This allows them to sell their products in all grocery stores, delis, and restaurants throughout Ecuador.
Heather explains proudly that she has been able to teach the skills, art and science of each cheese recipe to Viviana, a local indigenous woman, who is now in the position of head cheesemaker. Viviana has worked with Verde Oveja from its inception and knows all things sheep and cheese. In addition to Viviana, there are two other women learning the artisanal cheesemaking trade.
Because it’s made with sheep’s milk, many of Verde Oveja’s cheeses have European pedigrees, including Tomme (France and Switzerland); Manchego (Spain); Halloumi (Cyprus); Feta (Greece); as well as Asiago and Ricotta (Italy). Other cheeses include Verde Oveja’s own creations, such as the National Award-winning Andean Ash, fresh spreadable sheep cheese with different flavors, and a blended aged cheese called Montaña. There are also traditional favorites made from cow’s milk, such as sharp cheddar, cottage cheese and cheese curds.
The Lamb Meat
The lambs that are produced on the farm are humanely handled, pasture raised, grass fed lambs and professionally processed and distributed by L&S Artisan Meats. The presentation of the meat cuts are representative of traditional South African lamb, due to the influence of Phillip’s South African heritage. Check out the specialty lamb sausage, Boerwoers, that L&S creates with Phillip’s recipe. Verde Oveja feels that their lamb is the superior product in the country of Ecuador.
To learn all about Verde Oveja’s cheeses, the cheesemaking process, recipes, and tips about how to store it, click here.
To learn learn about all of Verde Oveja’s projects and to keep up with activities on the farm, click here to receive the newsletter.
Verde Oveja is coming to Cuenca!
Verde Oveja is participating in the big Quesos y Bebidas exhibition — a showcase of cheese, wine and artisanal beer in Ecuador — September 9-11 at Mall del Rio in Cuenca. For more information about the event and how to purchase tickets, click here. This is a one-time opportunity for you to meet Verde Oveja in person and sample all their products!
Photos courtesy of Verde Oveja and Graciela Quinde.