Connecticut’s Largest Sheep Farm

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 24, 2002

“A day here is never typical,” says Suzanne Sankow of Beaver Brook Farm, which has been in the family for 85 years and is Connecticut’s largest sheep farm.

Suzanne’s grandfather, Buzzell Sankow, bought the land in 1917 for $2,000. Beaver Brook originally was a dairy farm, but the cows were deemed unprofitable and had been sold before Suzanne and Stan took over in 1984. To breathe new life into the farm, the Sankows brought in sheep, beginning with two named Sherry and Ding. Now, they have 600 sheep—Frislands, Romneys, and natural coloreds—either on pasture or taking it easy in their pens on the 175-acre spread in Lyme (pop. 2,016).

“It’s pretty wonderful to see a working farm that’s successful and thriving,” says employee Patricia Fortinski.

The wooly creatures keep all hands busy. “Depending on the day, there are many different ways that we go,” Suzanne says. “In the winter, we’re very involved with new lambs, because we lamb in February and March.” In late summer, everyone’s busy milking twice a day and making cheese. Unlike cows, sheep usually give milk for only three to four months.

Adding market value to what they produce makes the farm work. The Sankows make and sell yogurt and produce eight cheeses, including feta and pepper piccata. Summer also means farmer’s markets—they attend three in the area—so it’s a hectic time. Four days each in fall and spring, they hire a sheep shearer. Suzanne calls shearing labor intensive and very exact. “I have someone that comes in from New York, a production shearer. He’ll do 60-70 sheep a day,” she says.

Each animal provides 10 pounds of fleece per shearing, enough to produce 20 pairs of mittens. The fleece eventually becomes sweaters, mittens, hats, and socks, which are sold in the farm’s Wool Shop and Farm Market. “I spin and do some products,” Suzanne says, “but don’t have the time to do as much as I like,” so much of the fleece gets sent to places such as Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vt. Suzanne and Fortinski also give knitting and spinning lessons at the farm, teaching how to choose the fleece, prepare the fibers, spin the yarn, and wash and card the wool.

Some of the sheep are destined for the table. “They’re culled by breeding, how they look,” Stan says. Those selected are sent to a federally inspected plant and returned to the farm where Stan turns them into roasts and chops. Most items are vacuum packed or frozen. Lamb salami, pastrami, and liverwurst are a few of their meat products, sold right off the farm.

The Farm Market also carries some ready-to-eat meals such as lamb turnovers and lamb-stuffed squash, created by chef Stuart London, who also teaches cooking-with-lamb classes. A country French dinner class covers such delectable dishes as roast rack of lamb with lamb currant demi glacé, lamb and white bean ragout, and a few other dishes and desserts. Of course, all the ingredients are farm fresh. “We also make sauces and lamb marinade,” London says, “and grow most of the ingredients we use right here on the farm.”

Everything they do is environmentally conscious—they don’t use pesticides, for instance—and products go directly from farm to consumer. The public can stop at the farm for a visit, or get acquainted at the annual Farm Day. Held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it includes sheep shearing and spinning demonstrations, horse-drawn hayrides, local vendors selling their wares, and free samples of the farm’s meats and cheeses.

Interest in Beaver Brook’s products recently has spread to Europe. During the fall of 2001, two of their cheeses were among 50 from America taken to the Slow Food International Cheese Festival in Italy. “It’s the first time these cheeses have been on different soil,” says Suzanne. “That’s to teach people Americans can make artisan cheeses.”

And will try just about anything, in fact, to keep the family farm.