There are two compelling stories at the heart of Nettle Meadow Farm in Thurman, N.Y.: the duo of Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan turning a goat farm into an astutely moral (and nationally recognized) cheese operation, and their decision to restore the unique barn on the farm property in the wake of Hurricane Irene’s passing in 2011.
The 50-acre farm was purchased by Lorraine and Sheila in 2005 where they founded their dreams of artisanal cheeses equipped with four goats and a success-oriented work ethic. The reason it’s called artisanal cheese? Because it’s exactly that — an art. Every aspect of the process — from the breed of goats, to their diet, to the time of season, to the mood and eccentricities of the crafter as the cheese is being made — plays a subtle yet crucial role in the overall product. And when you have national ambitions as a manufacturer, all of these components must be carefully calibrated to achieve a consistent product.
The cornerstone cheese of Nettle Meadow’s operation, the Kunik, is a direct result of the founders’ meticulous ways. A style of cheese unique to the farm, it is made from goat milk produced at Nettle Meadow and mixed with cow’s milk. The cheese is a shining symbol of New York’s dairy ingenuity; in 2010 (a mere five years after Lorraine and Sheila purchased the farm) the cheese had been sniffed-out and elected by “Esquire” magazine as a Cheese of the Week. “It’s been written that even the geography plays a role in the overall product, based on things like local produce and barometric pressure,” explained co-owner Sheila Flanagan. “We’ve had customers note the saltiness of the cheese will differ between summer and winter months.”
The number of animals at Nettle Meadow Farm has grown over the years. Now, more than 300 goats of various breeds, sheep, llamas, cats, dogs, donkeys, ducks, chickens — virtually any classic farm fixture lives there.
Sound like a housing commune for misfit farm animals? That’s kind of the point. The farm has a “no kill” policy, meaning that any animals who take up residency at Nettle Meadows are guaranteed care until they pass by natural means. Goats too old for milking purposes are “retired” to the old barn where inactive rams (breeders) and a llama are also kept.
This same barn recently underwent restoration 100 years after its initial construction. In 2011, Hurricane Irene tore along the East Coast. The metal roof of the barn rippled and buckled in the aftermath of the storm. The barn’s most striking feature — its 26 foot high Gambrel-style vaulted roof — added an historical incentive to the restoration. Sheila and Lorraine describe the room most efficiently as looking like the “hull of an inverted ship.”
“We initially had a couple contractors come to the farm and assess the project,” explained Sheila, “but all of them thought it was too dangerous … better to just tear the barn down and build something new.” Equally disheartened to see the barn’s destruction, intrepid Nettle Meadow farmhand Joel Mosher volunteered his construction experience to help put the roof back together; he and his brother Aaron helped replace the roof. Local contractor Andy LeBlanc, known for restoring other barns in the area, was recruited to replace damaged timbers, floors, walls and windows. Sheila and Lorraine took out a second mortgage to fund the labor and supplies for the restoration. On Oct. 12, 2013, the barn at Nettle Meadows Farm was opened as part of the Thurman Fall Farm Tour, in which sugar shacks, gardens, and farms across the town of Thurman open their doors to the public to visit and celebrate.
Sheila Flanagan described how musicians who visit the barn are struck by the marvelous acoustics of the upstairs room, so talks of hosting genre-appropriate concerts have been fielded. “We saw it as an obligation to the community to keep the barn intact, and [public events are] really how we expect to use the upstairs space in the future.” The farm has even been approached by local acting troupes with requests to stage productions in the barn, however nothing has been scheduled as of yet.
The farm and its cheese shop (newly opened autumn of 2013) are open from Thursday to Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., making it an ideal stopping destination on a weekend traipse through Northern New York. Thurman is a scant 10.5 miles from Warrensburg, N.Y., which is located directly off exit 23 of I-87. Conceivably, anyone traveling through the area by way of I-87 could find their way to the farm, sample or purchase some exquisite cheeses, and be back on the road in the space of an hour. Even if one was staying in Albany or Saratoga Springs (75 and 40 mile trips one-way, respectively) a trip to Nettle Meadows Farm would leave half of the day wide open.
You’re just not doing New York right if you get that close to nationally renowned cheese and don’t pull over.