Bellwether Farms has been counting on sheep for more than three decades.
Some people count sheep to help them fall asleep but for the Callahan family, this ritual is part of the family legacy—and one that has helped them become a leading cheese farm in the U.S.
It was 33 years ago when Cindy Callahan, a once practicing nurse, decided to make a drastic career change, one that had her caring for sheep and lambs, rather than patients. It was in 1986 when the then-50-something started Bellwether Farms in California’s Sonoma County, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.
“She had bought sheep as lawnmowers on a small farm outside of Petaluma, and my parents had planned on eventually retiring here,” says Liam Callahan, who runs Bellwether Farms today. “She began to raise her sheep and sell lamb to a few local restaurants in the winter of 1986-87.”
A friend who had recently moved from the Middle East suggested to Callahan that she milk her sheep, and she soon saw the potential of a sheep dairy farm, then embraced the challenge of a new career.
“She discovered that some of our favorite cheeses were made from sheep milk without us realizing it,” Callahan says. “A little more research confirmed that the U.S. sheep dairy industry had literally just begun.”
The dairy began in 1990, the same year that Liam graduated from college with a degree in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley. His mother suggested he learn about sheep milking and cheese making with her, and the two of them set on this interesting ride together.
“Once we knew sheep milk really wasn’t something crazy, and I was willing to move back full time to work on the project, we began renovating one existing barn and built another to support the dairy,” Callahan says. “We started milking by the summer and going to farmers markets to sell our new cheeses.”
Using traditional methods, Callahan creates every pound of cheese produced by Bellwether Farms himself. Over the years, his dedication to creating cheese of the highest quality has made his work more a labor of love than a job, and it’s one that he wouldn’t trade for anything.
In 1996, Liam got married and his wife, Diana, came with him to the farm. She quickly discovered that joining the Callahan family also meant joining the “family business.”
Diana went to work in the Cheese Room until the couple’s first child was born, when she then turned her efforts to running the office and handling the mail order side of the business. Her total dedication to customer happiness means you get the cheeses you want when you want them. As if that wasn’t enough, she also handwrites all the gift enclosures that go with Bellwether cheeses.
An Evolving Business
Though Bellwether Farms started with sheep cheeses in 1990, by 1994 the company had started to purchase cow’s milk from Albert Straus once he started his company.
“Sue Conley was working for us at that time, helping to sell our products while she was putting her Cowgirl project together, and she introduced me to Albert, who she was working for, as well,” Callahan says. “In fact, for a couple of years, we shared a larger booth at the Winter Fancy Food Show with Straus, Cowgirl and Redwood Hill.”
In late 1996, Bellwether switched to using 100 percent Jersey cow milk (leaving Straus) for its cow line (Carmody, Crescenza, Food Service Ricotta). Three years later, it launched Creme Fraiche. In 2006, the company launched its Sheep Milk Yogurts, followed by the launch of Retail Ricotta Baskets in 2010 and Organic Cow Yogurts in 2017.
“Despite all these products, everything is done on a relatively small scale,” Callahan says. “It’s all done with vat pasteurization, but I now have five [vats], ranging from 100 gallons up to 600 gallons.”
Today, Bellwether Farms is still completely family owned and located in its original creamery in Sonoma County.
“We continue to work at making our products better, even as we make more of them,” Callahan says. “We are committed to being part of the continued growth of the U.S. sheep industry and are developing new products we think will be really tasty.”
Not that getting to this point was easy. Callahan notes that early on, almost everything was a challenge—from learning how to raise animals to milking them, making cheese and marketing it.
For instance, on their first day ever of milking, the Callahans started in the morning and didn’t finish milking the 100 ewes until about two hours before it was time for evening milking to begin.
Another time they tried catching the sheep with a fishing net!
“We have reinvented the wheel so many times here, it is laughable,” he says. “Honestly, I wish I was better at asking for help, and we would be much further along. However, at our core, we knew we were working for ourselves and our family goals and were willing to work very hard. My mother has no quit in her, and I was lucky to have her as a partner.”
Bellwether Farms continues to be lauded for its sheep milk products, now mostly yogurt and cow milk crème fraiche and two time Sofi gold Ricotta.
“While we still produce aged cheeses, they are no longer our main items,” Callahan says. “We have trended towards fresh products that require less time to age and less space in our cramped creamery. We are proud of the continued recognition we get for our products. Our sheep cheeses are recognized every year at the ACS competition, as is our Creme Fraiche. Our Basket Ricotta has now won two Sofi Golds, a U.S. cheese championship and many Good Food Awards.”
That award-winning cheese line includes Carmody, Sheep Ricotta, Crescenza, Pepato, San Andreas, Carmody Whole Wheel and Fromage Blanc.
At Bellwether, the sheep are a Northern European breed called East Friesian, considered among the best milk-producing sheep in the world. Taller than ordinary sheep, they’re known for their relatively long and pointy ears, and each ewe has from one to three lambs each year. After the lambs are weaned, the ewe is milked for up to eight months.
“Our sheep are free to roam the pasture year round, but they’re also fed grain and alfalfa to keep them in top condition for milk production,” Callahan says. “We believe in letting nature do her thing as she sees fit, so our sheep are never injected with hormones to increase production.”
In the company’s continual quest to improve its process and product, Liam has visited cheese makers in Europe and discussed secrets and processes and just got more a feel for the industry at large.
“We discovered that, using traditional methods, no two cheesemakers could possibly make the same cheese due to subtle differences in milk, climate, equipment and technique,” he says. “This was welcome confirmation that we had chosen the right path; our emphasis on the traditional methods would ensure the highest quality and a unique taste that could not
be replicated anywhere.”
Success has come from what he describes as a “willingness to get the job done to an acceptable level of quality with a fair bit of enthusiasm.” That’s a philosophy shared by the entire Bellwether Farms team.
“Our team is still small and hands-on,” Callahan says, who though doesn’t have a title, is a mix of cheesemaker, head mechanic and CEO. Yet, those responsibilities are shifting. “I am still involved in these activities almost daily, even as my other responsibilities have increased. My mother has mostly retired now, and my wife shares my office at the creamery and takes on too many tasks to list.”
The Callahans are always thinking about the future, and a long-term goal has always been to build a new creamery on the property.
“We don’t really want to move into town. We are getting closer, but consolidation in the industry, and the unbelievable cost of these sorts of projects has me more cautious,” he says. “I think there is still lots more to be done with cheese. We have always felt a product would be successful if we liked it personally. I still think that is mostly true.”
And judging by the outpouring of love for the Callahans and their products, that’s something that is heavily agreed upon.
“The enthusiastic support we receive from our customers at farmers markets and restaurants around the San Francisco Bay area is further proof that we are providing something very special,” Callahan says.