The concept of milking sheep might raise eyebrows in North America. When we think of dairy products, cows usually spring to mind. But worldwide, dairy sheep outnumber cows at least three to one. And the market for artisanal sheep milk cheese and other dairy products in North America is large and growing.
In Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, sheep dairying is a huge industry, with centuries of tradition behind it. Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean about the size of Vermont, produces most of the world’s Pecorino Romano cheese. (Pecora means sheep in Italian.) Feta cheese is made primarily from sheep’s milk. (Under European Union legislation, to bear the name “feta”, the cheese must be produced using traditional techniques in some areas of Greece, and be made from sheep’s milk or from a mixture of sheep and [up to 30 percent] goat’s milk.)
Roquefort is a sheep’s milk cheese, as is Ricotta. Asiago was traditionally made from sheep’s milk, and can still be found in that form today. Today, many other artisanal cheeses are being made using sheep’s milk, including Brie. And then there’s Greek yogurt, traditionally made from sheep’s milk.
In 1995 Canada imported about 2.13 million kilograms of sheep cheese. That’s not including Feta. If 5 liters of milk are needed to make 1 kg of sheep cheese, this amounts to about 10.7 million liters. Assuming an average production of 200 liters per ewe per lactation, that means we’d need to milk 53,500 sheep here in Canada to replace the imported sheep cheese.
Of course, no one wants to replace all of those delicious imported cheeses. But these numbers reveal the potential in the market.
And many items aren’t often imported. Yogurt, ice cream and soft cheeses have high transportation costs and short shelf life.