Last week, Many Fold Farm, Georgia’s only all-sheep creamery known for its award-winning cheeses, fresh eggs, and beautiful cuts of lamb, announced that it would close for business in January 2017. Fans, who include Atlanta chef Todd Ginsberg, were shocked.
“It’s a loss to our community, our state, and our country. They were on a national stage and it’s a shame that they weren’t supported enough at home,” Ginsberg said.
Many Fold was one of the fastest growing creameries in the region. Their sheep’s milk cheeses—made by Drue Hocker and overseen by Tim Gaddis, formerly the lauded cheesemonger of Star Provisions—claimed prizes at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition (think of it as the Oscars of the cheese world) for the past four years. Gaddis, who was recently elected to the American Cheese Society board of directors, said he was saddened by the closure. “I feel like invested a lot of myself in Many Fold and took great pride in presenting the cheeses across the nation. I hope this is not the last we see of the cheeses.”
Rebecca and Ross Williams started Many Fold in 2009, around the same time that buying local and eating farm-to-table became a hot trend. Many young people across the country were doing the same with less experience than Ross, who had farmed at the Warren Wilson College Farm and Heifer International’s Overlook Farm. But even for a couple as passionate and smart as the Williams, farm life was a difficult way to make a living. The higher prices on goods like eggs and produce that allow farmers to stay in business are often a tough sell for consumers, Rebecca says.
Rebecca illustrated this issue with an anecdote about her first farmers market, where she sold only eggs from Many Fold. At the time, the eggs were going for $6 for a dozen (they now go for $8). A potential customer walked up and balked at the price, telling Rebecca they were far too expensive. Then, Rebecca recalled, she watched the customer pay $2.50 for an ice pop. But those are mostly frozen water versus eggs, which are a nutrient-dense and inexpensive meal. She says that people often think small farms are elitist, but many of her farmer friends are living in poverty. “People don’t want to pay $35 for a piece of cheese. But that’s much closer to what it actually costs to produce than what we were charging for it. We really felt like we were charging what the market would bear, and it was too much.”
“Sheep don’t pay the bills,” she said. The Sarah Lawrence and Emory graduate did a lot of research before opening Many Fold and crafted a business plan. “We were operating under the assumption of every sheep producing, fairly consistently, between 1 and 2 liters of milk per day.” That was not the case in reality—especially because the Williams chose to add another layer of difficulty by not keeping their flock in confinement. They hoped free roaming would add more character to their sheep’s milk. It did, but at the expense of the sheep producing far less milk than they needed to keep up with demand.
Further, the type of sheep at Many Fold, East Friesian sheep, have only been in the United States for thirty years, which means there is little breed support, Rebecca explained. “People have been working to improve and adapt this breed to individual climates and settings, but there really hasn’t been a consorted breed improvement program, as there have been with other livestock in the U.S. It’s been every man as an island of trying to get these genetics improved, and it simply isn’t working.”
The Williams tried to remedy the production issues by adding more sheep to the flock and mixing the sheep’s milk with cow’s milk. But to stay afloat, they needed to either scale up, switch to a confinement setting, or take more risks on trying to make the East Friesian breed work for them. After crunching the numbers for the next five years, they decided it made no economic sense to continue business.
The couple, who have two small children, have no immediate plans to restart the creamery. Instead, they need to restock their “emotional coffers,” as Rebecca puts it. “We’ve worked incredibly hard over the past seven years, and we were really, really tired.” They plan to keep the livestock and manage the intensive rotational grazing. Egg production, which Rebecca says is easy compared to raising sheep, will continue, but on a much smaller scale (from 1000 chickens to a few hundred), with most eggs sold close to the farm or directly to restaurants.