Family’s dedication to cheese-making pays off
Published: Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.
The fertile green pastureland of Bellwether Farms dotted with fluffy, grazing sheep is clearly worlds apart from the sharp, complex, facts and figures world of political economy that Liam Callahan was studying at the University of California, Berkeley during the late ’80s.
SONOMA COUNTY FAIR
The Sonoma County Fair celebrates its diamond jubilee — its 75th anniversary — with a theme looking back at the fair’s past, present and future. The Sonoma County Fair begins Wednesday, July 27 and continues through Aug. 14 with horse racing, entertainment, carnival rides, junior and professional livestock shows and The Hall of Flowers, which will be a tribute to the “best of the best” flower shows from past years. As part of the diamond jubilee celebration, there will be a Hall of Fair History Museum featuring memorabilia from the past 75 years. The museum curators, including Petaluma resident and museum coordinator Katherine Rinehart, have brought together a huge assortment of memorabilia, including blue ribbons, trophies, uniforms, photographs, recipes, toys and crafts, which will be on display.
When: July 27 through Aug. 14. Closed on Mondays
Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The carnival remains open until 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Tickets: $9 ages 13 and older; Children $3 ages 7-12; free for kids 6 and under. Kids ages 7-12 are admitted free on Thursdays; Seniors 60 and older admitted free on Wednesday.
Parking: $6 in Brookwood lot; $7 in Veterans lot; and $8 in the Pavilion and Median lot.
“I had no idea that I would be raising sheep today,” said Callahan, co-owner of Bellwether Farms. “Looking back, I remember taking an aptitude test in school to narrow my career choice based on answering questions. It came back that my first choice based on my answers was international business. The second choice recommended was a career as a farmer.”
Growing up in the fast-paced city of San Francisco, becoming a farmer was the last thing on Callahan’s mind. But it was precisely the craziness of city life that persuaded his parents, Cindy and Ed Callahan, to move to a peaceful 32-acre ranch in west Petaluma in 1986.
“My mom convinced my dad that she had enough of living in the city,” said Callahan. “I was just out of the house and away at college and my brother was finishing high school, so it seemed a good time for them to relocate.”
The many acres of land, however, came with many acres of grass growing wild, so that first summer, Cindy bought some sheep to act as nature’s lawnmowers.
“We needed something inexpensive and not likely to trample us to death, so we chose sheep,” said Callahan. “My mom fell in love with raising sheep. She just really jumped in with both feet. The sheep were having lambs by that winter.”
It wasn’t long before the Callahans were selling lamb to restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the Old Vic in Santa Rosa.
Callahan and his brother would come home during the summer to build fences and barns for the sheep, while Cindy took care of the day-to-day care of the flock, which has since grown to about 250 East Friesian sheep. The particular breed is known for its milk production.
In 1990, Callahan decided to move home and explore the possibility of saying goodbye to political economy and hello to sheep-ranching as a full-time gig.
“I was just finishing school and mom asked me what I thought about having a bigger part in the business,” said Callahan. “I thought it sounded interesting, so I decided to stick around.”
That summer, the Callahans built a dairy and started milking sheep. A goat dairy nearby allowed them to make cheese at their facility until the Callahans were able to get a cheese-making license from the state.
“We’ve been making cheese since 1990, but it wasn’t until 1992 that we started making it at the farm,” said Callahan. “We sold cheese at farmers markets in the beginning, then to restaurants, then at local stores and now to larger retailers.”
Bellwether Farms produces a variety of sheep and cow’s milk cheeses, including ricotta, créme fraiche and fromage blanc, along with original cheeses such as San Andreas, Pepato, Carmody and Crescenza, which are modeled after Italian-style cheeses. They also have a line of sheep’s milk yogurts.
Callahan’s wife, Diana, joined the Bellwether Farms team in the late 1990s and currently handles the business side of things, while Callahan has immersed himself in cheese-making, which he considers a labor of love rather than a job.
The family’s hard work and dedication to the craft of cheese-making over the years has paid off in the form of numerous awards, including a special, recent recognition. The Callahan family and Bellwether Farms has been selected as the North Bay Rancher of the Year by the Sonoma County Fair. The family will be recognized at an awards ceremony on Farmers Day at the fair on Aug. 7.
“It was kind of surprising,” said Callahan of the award. “We came to Sonoma County with no agriculture experience and as outsiders in terms of the already established agriculture in this area. It’s really neat that people are noticing what we’re doing.”
(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at email@example.com)
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