THE sign at the entrance to Suzanne and Stan Sankow’s farm, named Beaver Brook for the creek that runs through the property in Lyme on its way to the nearby Connecticut River, is a quaint portrait of a black-faced sheep. The farm makes and sells, among other products, artisanal sheep and cow’s milk cheeses and hand-spun wool garments.
When most people think about this kind of handmade production, they imagine tranquil, creative people engaged in a wholesome hobby. But these are no dilettantes. The farm has been in Mr. Sankow’s family since 1917, and he has been doing farm work of one sort or another since he was a child. And he knows it is a tough business.
”With all the work we do, there’s not enough money,” said Mr. Sankow, a lean, good-natured man of 65. ”We get people at the farmer’s market who want us to be their producers. They add their profit, and they make more money than we do.”
He pointed out that farming in Connecticut wasn’t like farming in California. ”In Connecticut, you’re so limited by geography,” he said. ”There’s not a lot of good land here for a big farm. There’s rocks everywhere. The seasons are too short.”
That said, Mr. Sankow appreciates the freedom of farming. ”It’s all the clichés,” he said. ”You’re your own boss. You’re in the open air. It’s just a comfortable way to live.”
Mrs. Sankow, also 65, did not start farming until she was in her 40’s, but seems to be a complete convert. ”I can’t say there’s anything that I dislike doing here,” she said. ”Farming is more nurturing to the human spirit than any other job. It’s just total joy when you’re out there with the animals.”
Before 1984, the farm was home to a few beef cattle. But the Sankows decided to begin raising sheep as a means of supporting Mrs. Sankow’s spinning and weaving and to make the farm self-sustaining.
”My goal when I looked at the farm and saw the beauty of the land was to get it to produce something,” she said.
From there, they improvised: the original herd produced more sheep than needed for wool, so the farm began selling the excess animals to a slaughterhouse. And during lambing season there was all that milk, so with a federal grant for sustainable agriculture, Mrs. Sankow hired a Belgian cheese maker to teach her how to make sheep’s milk cheeses. But sheep produce milk only during lambing season, so the return on the Sankows’ investment was limited. Two years ago they added cows — Jerseys, because they are a small breed that produces milk high in butterfat — and started making cow’s milk cheese, a year-round product. They currently sell about 15,000 pounds of cheese a year.
In addition to cheese, Beaver Brook produces cow’s milk yogurt, ice cream and raw milk. The farm sells lamb and veal (slaughtered elsewhere under federal inspection and returned to the farm for butchering), lamb pastrami, salami and sausage. The Sankows hired Stu London, the chef at Nini’s Bistro in New Haven, to use the lamb in prepared foods such as lamb Bolognese sauce, also made and sold at the farm. In the future, Mrs. Sankow hopes to grow all of the fruits and vegetable used in their products; they currently grow tomatoes only, which are sold in season at farmers’ markets.
The Sankows don’t work together; they have separate tasks. She handles the lambing and breeding and supervises the twice-a-year shearing (which is done by contract workers). She also makes the cheese and teaches spinning and knitting. Mr. Sankow grows the tomatoes and manages a gravel pit on the property, an important side business that keeps the farm afloat. ”Stan always says that he makes the money,” Mrs. Sankow said, ”and I spend it.”
There is federal assistance for farms like the Sankows’. Mrs. Sankow said the government currently subsidizes sheep farmers to increase the United States sheep herd, paying $18 for each ewe. Farms also receive a small federal subsidy during drought years. But banks won’t lend to farmers like the Sankows. ”They always say farms have too much equity, not enough income,” Mrs. Sankow said.
Getting and keeping trained help is difficult. ”Our help is good people, and for the most part, very well educated,” Mr. Sankow said. ”But it’s hard to keep them here. The younger people, once they’ve worked here for a while, they want to go someplace else to make more money. The kids we get from overseas, if they’re good, their visas run out after a year.” (The farm has two full-time and three part-time employees who live elsewhere, and one foreign student living and working on the farm on a yearlong visa.)
Mrs. Sankow works long days, starting at about 7 a.m. and ending at 9 or 10 p.m. Now, during lambing season, she may be out in the barn until 2 or 3 in the morning taking care of the newborns. ”People say you never get away,” she said. ”I don’t need to get away. I enjoy the land, the change of seasons, the change in the work.”
The hardest part of her job is ”when the lambing doesn’t go right, when you lose animals,” she said. ”I get very angry because I feel like there’s something I could have done.”
Mrs. Sankow used to breed the ewes to give birth in January, but she changed the schedule this year so that lambing began in February, after the most bitter cold of the winter, to protect the newborns. She thinks the change is responsible for this year’s high percentage of multiple births.
The lambs and calves are given no growth hormones or antibiotics. Mrs. Sankow maintains that the excellent flavor of the lamb is because, in part, of the fact that even before it is born, she controls the genetics and what the mother eats. After they are born, ”I raise them,” she said, sitting on her knees in a stall, bottle-feeding a newborn ewe lamb. According to Mr. Sankow, the first few batches of animals sent out each year to slaughter are tough on both of them.
There are several sheep farms in Connecticut, but Beaver Brook is the only one whose food products are consistently available locally, at least in the eastern part of the state. (You may also find artisanal cow’s milk cheeses made at Cato Corner Farm in Colchester.) Markets and restaurants that buy from Beaver Brook do so for several reasons. ”I like to have foods that are different from the norm,” said Ron Forte, the owner of Forte’s Quality Meats in Guilford. ”I sell quite a bit of cheese and some of their cheeses are unlike anything else I can get hold of.”
Jeffrey Pandolfino, who recently opened Plum, a gourmet shop and catering business in Cos Cob, works to support local food producers; he appreciates the taste of the cheeses and the fact that they are produced in Connecticut. ”It’s fantastic cheese and even more fantastic because it’s in our backyard,” Mr. Pandolfino said. He said he had to wait a little while to get the cheese in sometimes, but then it ”flies off the shelf.”
Tim Quinn, the executive chef of Sherlock 221 in New London, also prefers buying local. He buys both cheese and lamb for the restaurant. About the cheese, he said: ”You can go up there and see them making it, and that’s really something. You can see the camembert as it ages, getting a little softer and a little smaller.”
Mr. Quinn said Beaver Brook lamb was for people who think they don’t like lamb, because it has a ”less gamey flavor.”
”People see Beaver Brook on the menu,” he said, ”and they notice: ‘Hey, it’s just up the road.”’