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Ring of Trees Farm: Couple turns dream into reality

Jan 4th, 2016 | Category: Community

by Mary Vermillion

A lot has changed in four years for Cheri and Fred Gustafson, who married, then launched from scratch Whatcom County’s only sheep dairy, Ring of Trees Farm. A micro-dairy and creamery on 7.5 acres outside of Bellingham, today they successfully produce cheese, yogurt and milk, are quickly gaining a community following.

For Fred, it’s a dream come true. When they were dating, Cheri asked what he wanted most in the world. His answer: a family-owned business. The Gustafsons were each previously married with children. At their wedding, the pastor said their blended families was like a ring of trees providing strength. When Fred’s dream materialized as a sheep dairy farm, Cheri, who grew up around meat sheep, wasn’t immediately sold. She changed her mind after seeing how sweet and personable dairy sheep can be.

Fred and Cheri Gustafson with some of their sheep. Cheri makes the cheese, and Fred manages the flock and handles business operations. The Gustafsons selected East Friesian sheep, a breed that produces high volumes of milk. To strengthen the herd, they are breeding the Friesian ewes with hardier Tunis and Lacaune rams. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

Fred and Cheri Gustafson with some of their sheep. Cheri makes the cheese, and Fred manages the flock and handles business operations. The Gustafsons selected East Friesian sheep, a breed that produces high volumes of milk. To strengthen the herd, they are breeding the Friesian ewes with hardier Tunis and Lacaune rams. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

An East Friesian ewe named Ingrid stole her heart. Cheri recalls that Ingrid pushed her way to the front of a flock with sheep for sale and put her head in Cheri’s outstretched hand. “I fell for her,” she said. Ring of Trees started operation with Ingrid, nine other ewes and one ram. Today, Ring of Trees has 24 ewes and two rams; the number may rise to 44 ewes in 2016. “That’s as large as we’re going to get sheep-wise,” Fred said. “People will say you can’t support a farm with fewer than 250 ewes. But, we’re doing fine.”

Cheri knows each sheep by their name, which is often inspired by a trait or personality quirk. Panda has a black circle around one eye. Puppy tags along behind visitors. Elmo has a broad face and tag number 1,2,3. The barnyard is also home to pigs that eat the whey produced during cheese making; Herman, a guinea fowl; and Loki and Elsie, two great pyrenees that keep the flock safe from predators.

Sheep milk is ideal for making cheese because it is richer than cow or goat milk, resulting in twice as much cheese per gallon, they said. East Friesian sheep produce especially high volumes of milk, but the breed is delicate. To strengthen the herd, the Gustafsons are breeding the ewes with hardier Tunis and Lacaune rams. Fred has primary responsibility for the animals as well as marketing and operations. Cheri is the cheese maker.

Their respective roles reflect past lives. Cheri, who grew up on Lummi Island, spent 25 years in the fashion design industry in Los Angeles. Today, she’s watching flavor trends. Fred, who also hails from Whatcom County, has extensive electronics and business experience.

Cheri taught herself to make cheese by reading books, experimenting, talking to cheese makers, and taking a beginning class. They also credit the support of local cheese makers.

Ring of Trees makes four styles of cheese: pecorino romano; manchego flavored with rosemary and garlic, saffron or red pepper; hallumi, a Greek frying cheese; and Ingrid’s Pride, which was created by accident one day when Cheri left the creamery midway through making feta cheese to break up a friendly water fight among their children. When she returned, she mistakenly finished the batch as manchego.

There is a distinctive fresh, clean and sweet taste to Ring of Trees products. The difference begins with the milk. “I read that odors can be absorbed through the udder,” Fred said, so he focuses on keeping the barn clean and regularly adds fresh shavings to the pens. His meticulous standards impress dairy inspectors, who have asked if the couple would help other people establish flocks.

A sample plate of Ring of Trees cheese includes (left to right) Pecorino Romano and Manchego flavored with rosemary and garlic, saffron and red pepper. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

A sample plate of Ring of Trees cheese includes (left to right) Pecorino Romano and Manchego flavored with rosemary and garlic, saffron and red pepper. PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

With Fred, Cheri and their three children who live at home as the crew, Ring of Trees can produce as much as 10,000 pounds of cheese annually. They recently added yogurt and fluid milk to their product line. Fred’s winter project is to add 480 square feet to the creamery, doubling the space to accommodate more room for packaging.

Locally, they sell their products at the Bellingham Co-ops as well as occasional booths at the Bellingham Farmers Market. The Puget Sound Food Hub is helping to expand their sales territory. New clients include Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, whose patients find the high-protein cheese and yogurt easier to digest, and day care facilities that need menu options for children with food allergies. Local chefs are also discovering the product and adding it to menus.

After their rapid start, the Gustafsons aren’t planning major expansions. “We got married because we love each other and enjoy each other’s company,” Cheri said. “Sometimes it’s crazy. I’m in the creamery all day; he’s in the barn all day. We are constantly thinking about how to improve the business while maintaining balance.”

 

Tours and more information

Beginning this month, check Ring of Trees’ Facebook page for announcements regarding weekly, small group tours during lambing season.

The farm is located at 790 W Larson Road in Bellingham and can be reached at (360) 383-7265. Find their products at the Bellingham Community Food Co-op locations and occasional booths at the Bellingham Farmers Market.

 

 

 

Published in the January 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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