New Jersey Dispatch: Valley Shepherd
"Le Bernardin is his best customer."
When was the last time somebody built a whole new farm in the state of New Jersey? That's what Valley Shepherd did. When they outgrew their old space back around 2003, they went down the road and bought an abandoned farm in Long Valley. Land that very likely could have been a strip mall or a sprawling subdivision somehow became a farm instead.
Seven years ago, when I first interviewed him for my book "Farms and Foods of the Garden State," Eran Wajswol was a guy with one hundred and thirty sheep on twenty acres who was making cheese to sell in Manhattan farmer's markets. Today, he's got six hundred sheep, seven interns, a hundred twenty more acres of land, a shop, and a farmer's market empire. Back then Eran had a vision; he would make better cheese than anybody else and sell it in local markets, his goal was to offer it at Murray's Cheese Shop.
Valley Shepard began selling in farmer's markets back in the days when it was called "Farmersville Cheese." The first market was Bernardsville, a tiny market known for its few but exceptional vendors. Indeed, his stand was right by The Bake House (which has now moved to New Mexico). That must have been some combo! A loaf of Kathy's bread and a wedge of Eran's cheese. A New Jersey artisan grand slam. Now he's grown a bit, he sells the cheese in markets all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey; to restaurants—he tells me that Le Bernardin is his best customer—and in retail stores as far away as San Francisco. How did he get there?
He's got the drive. Not many people are willing to put in the sheer energy that a town like Long Valley would demand of a person who wanted to keep livestock in what they would consider to be a pleasant suburban town. Then there's the tenacity to stick things through; successful cheesemaking takes practice. "It took fifteen years to develop a feel for the curds with my hands." Eran told me.
Actually, he told me a lot more, while he was draining a goat cheese, supervising an intern from Spain, checking two large vats of sheep milk, and talking to a local B&B owner (who asked "Could you give a tour in Hebrew?") all at the same time.
There's a deal with a farm in Sussex County, Springhouse Dairy, to milk Guernsey Cows for him. That alone is big news; in New Jersey, any activity that brings back dairy farming deserves a headline, and it means that with four streams of milk—sheep, goat, Jersey Cow, and Guernsey—Eran will be able to continue to expand his range of cheeses even more.
There's so much activity hereL tours, cheesemaking classes, festivals. Cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, butter, lamb, and sheep-inspired souvenirs for sale. Eran tells me that while publishers want him to write a cheese text book, he thinks a Peyton Place-like tell-all memoir would give a better picture of what's going on.
Valley Shepard makes a wide variety of cheeses, starting with fresh ricotta and ranging to wheels that are aged for up to two years. I can't give you too many details; as I said, things change quickly. But as of May, 2010, there are twenty seven-varieties.
Back in 2003, Eran said " We can sell endlessly; there's no limit." He seems to be correct so far. Demand is soaring and competition is almost nonexistent; New Jersey has just three artisan cheese producers; Valley Shepherd, Cherry Grove, and Bobolink Dairy. Indeed, a few more competitors might make people more aware that the category exists at all. But if there were more demand, there'd have to be more sheep, more time in the "fun cheese prison" (as he calls it), more interns, and—well, there's only one Eran.