When local couple Brent and Carrie Wasser met in 2015, they knew they would someday start a farm together. Brent had studied food production in Europe and attended the Culinary Institute of America before teaching there himself, and Carrie, a Gardiner native, had served as the editor of a Vermont food magazine and apprenticed at a number of livestock farms. Their years of combined experience made them ideal candidates to start their own from scratch, and so it was only natural when they established Willow Pond Sheep Farm in 2018.
“Brent learned that my parents owned some land in Gardiner and had the idea that perhaps we could start a farm here,” said Carrie. “He was primarily interested in sheep dairying and making sheep dairy products. I was mostly interested in raising livestock, which I’d wanted to do all my life. We made it happen.” She described the farm as pastoral, welcoming and humane, adding, “I have a tremendous interest in humane animal agriculture. I only eat meat if I know it’s been humanely raised. So that’s a huge part of what we do here.”
Carrie, who had worked with other livestock but had no prior experience working with sheep, quickly took on multiple internships - two in Vermont and one in England - to learn everything she would need to know to operate the farm. As 21st century farmers, the Wassers seek to pair human beings’ long-standing connection with sheep to modern techniques and demands. One of the ways they accomplish this goal is by providing Hudson Valley locals with a rare product: sheep’s milk yogurt.
In the United States, sheep’s milk is primarily used by cheese makers to produce items such as manchego or roquefort cheese. “But as more sheep dairies open, the farmers are realizing that the milk also makes really great yogurt. The yogurt ends up being really creamy, velvety and thick, but not in a pasty way. More like in a very silky way,” Carrie said. “Goat dairies are more prevalent here, so we are really happy to be providing folks with a product that is challenging to find in the United States. From what we’ve been told, we’re the only sheep dairy in the Hudson Valley.”
Aside from its role in producing creamy yogurt, sheep milk offers health benefits as well; it has more protein than goat or cow milk and it results in a full-fat yogurt product that’s higher in cream content, making it ideal for anyone pursuing a higher protein, full-fat diet.
Willow Pond Sheep Farm’s creamery and milking parlor utilize state-of-the-art equipment to facilitate production. The Wassers bring milk from the farm’s milk house, where it is stored in a tank at a low temperature, to a stainless steel vat, where it is heated to a high temperature to ensure a firm final product.
Once finished heating, the liquid is inoculated and filled in glass jars before being incubated in a warming cabinet for six to eight hours. When the incubation period is complete, the yogurt is cooled to a refrigeration temperature as rapidly as possible. The whole process can range anywhere from 18 to 20 hours in length, from the moment the milk is first pumped into the pasteurizer to the moment the yogurt has fully cooled, although the Wassers’ direct involvement only encompasses six of those hours.
While Willow Pond Sheep Farm has been open for three years, the Wassers only began dairy production in 2020. According to Brent, it took the couple a month to perfect their development process.
“We’re using a selective culture that we identify as being good for the product that we’re looking to make in terms of flavor, body and acidity,” he explained. “All those factors are strongly impacted by the bacterial culture.”
Those interested in the Wassers’ yogurt - or in their sheep milk, sheepskin and grass-fed lamb meat - can make purchases at the farm, located at 2252 Route 44-45 in Gardiner, on Fridays between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Pre-orders can also be made by visiting willowpondsheepfarm.com.
Outside of the farm, the Wassers’ sell their products at local groceries and cafes throughout the Hudson Valley, including Julian’s Provisions and the Old Ford Farm store in Gardiner; the Health and Nutrition Center and the Grazery in New Paltz; and Mother Earth’s Storehouse and the Village Grocery and Refillery in Kingston.
They also sell at the Kingston, Rhinebeck and Cold Spring farmers’ markets, and respective market schedules can be viewed at the farm’s website.
Products will become unavailable in mid-October when the farm’s dairying season comes to an end, so patrons are encouraged to visit now ahead of the winter break.