In the middle of Ogden Valley is a new kind of farm for Utah that is making waves across the nation. The place is the Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery in Eden -- the only dairy sheep farm in the state.
The sheep creamery, owned and operated by Stig and Susan Hansen, is wrapping up just its sophomore year. But the results have impressed even the Hansens.
They took home the best of class award in March at the U.S. Cheese Championship with their Timpanogos Peak Blue Cheese. They also placed fourth with their Strawberry Peak Cheese in the mixed-blend category.
Despite the common expectation, sheep milk is a mild form of dairy, the taste more in line with cow's milk than goat's milk, said Stig Hansen.
The couple began discussing starting a farm several years ago. But Susan Hansen grew up on a dairy cow farm and was against that. In 2009, they had the opportunity to take over a flock of sheep.
"We really took a liking to the sheep, and especially we love cheeses from all over the world," she said.
So they put together a new farm in Eden and investigated artisan cheesemaking through Utah State University, with professor Donald McMahon, in 2010.
The farm is a small operation with a big herd. And these aren't exactly run-of-the mill ordinary sheep. The Hansens raise French Lacaune, Icelandic and East Freesian breeds.
Susan takes care of the large flock, Stig provides the expertise in creating the cheese, and Sasha and Kenai, two Great Pyrenees dogs, protect the farm from predators.
Susan handles the specific nutrition of the sheep. She will change the feed to prepare them for breeding and increase the chances of multiple births, and then change the nutrients to help the lambs wean themselves from their mother's milk.
She also takes extra care to make sure all of their feed comes from local sources.
"I thoroughly believe in supporting local agriculture," she said. "The more local we can eat, whether it's produce or cheese or meat, (customers) know where it comes from. They know how the animals were treated and fed. It's important to know if the animals were fed any hormones, if that's in the milk."
The creamery is coming off a whirlwind spring, experiencing everything that Mother Nature had to throw at them.
"It's been just unbelievable as far as the winds and the hail, and the snow and the huge, frigid temperature swings. That's really hard on all livestock," Susan said.
And the flock has grown by leaps and bounds; the two-person team handled 106 births. Susan said it was rare to get four hours of sleep a night during the season.
Recipe for success
A single sheep can produce 500 to a 1,000 pounds of milk per year, according to Susan. Then it's Stig's job to create the winning products through a very delicate process.
"The problem with cheesemaking is you just can't buy the recipe. Everything is so different," said Stig, an accomplished chef and author of a Danish cookbook.
And everything must be precise, right down to a temperature with very little variance.
Soon, the cheeses graced the shelves of several health markets along the Wasatch Front, and are now offered at Beehive Cheese in Uintah, Valley Market in Eden and Harmons stores.
The Hansens decided to enter the national cheese competition to give their farm more visibility.
"When I entered the contest, I was expecting to get some feedback from the judges," said Stig. He wanted tips from the pros.
But the tips never came -- instead, he won awards for both of his submissions.
"At first, I couldn't believe it," he said.
Added Susan: "He was against some really top-notch producers in the country. We were just so shocked, we couldn't believe it."
McMahon said he has been impressed with the small operation.
"Stig and Susan are a great combination," said McMahon, director of the Western Dairy Center at USU. "Because Susan very much loves her flock of sheep. The milk can develop rancid flavors very quickly. Susan's efforts in that regard have given Stig an excellent starting material for his cheesemaking.
"Then he has done a great job of providing the different varieties of white mold and blue mold."
There appear to be nutritional benefits to sheep's milk as well.
Susan said there is twice the protein in sheep's milk as in cow's milk. Also, people who are lactose-intolerant may eat the cheese without any ill effects.
"There are some people who have an allergy to some of the milk protein in cow's milk. Then they can drink a milk from another species and not have allergic reaction," explained McMahon.
While each milk source brings its own properties, McMahon said, there is no scientific evidence to say one type of milk is heathier than the other.
The Hansens now have a strong, growing flock and a variety of four cheeses to date -- all in under two years.
"We welcome people to come and have a tour of the farm," said Susan Hansen, "if they will give us a call first and let us know when they can come so we can arrange it."
Visit the Hansens' website at www.snowymountainsheepcreamery.com.
All of the cheeses from Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery are named after Utah peaks:
* Timpanogos Peak Blue Cheese -- This is a "timid" creamy blue cheese that the Hansens say is a great starting point for trying sheep cheese. It won Best in Class at this year's U.S. Cheese Championship.
* Strawberry Peak Alpine -- A blended cheese made of half sheep milk and half cow milk from local dairies, and aged for three months. This blended cheese finished fourth in the U.S. Cheese Championship.
* Delano Peak Baby Blue -- Another creamy blue cheese.
* King's Peak -- Another blended cheese, this one has a smear rind.