Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery’s farm stand is tucked behind a thatch of trees on Topsfield Road in Boxford and is blink-and-you-miss-it tiny, with nothing but a red door and a modest sign that reads “farm stand” on the outside. Inside, though, it’s a different story. The small, spare space is a cornucopia of meats, cheeses, honey, yarn, veggies, maple syrup, and other goods that are grown and made on the farm or within a handful of miles from it. The cheese, yarn, and meats come from sheep that graze on the farm’s 100-acre swath of conserved land.
Nathaniel Higleyand and Gillian Marino raise those sheep and make that cheese, and on the day they spoke to Northshore magazine, they were at home in the farmhouse where Marino had just given birth to the couple’s second baby a few days before. Their property was established in 1688, and their baby is no doubt the latest of many who’ve been born there.
That cozy story of a homesteading couple raising sheep and babies on their bucolic land far from the bustling city fits a narrative so romantic and idyllic that it seems plucked from a movie. But this story is very real, rooted in the land and inspired by the world’s greatest cheesemaking traditions.
Marino, the farm’s cheesemaker, has made cheese in Italy, England, France, Vermont, upstate New York, and throughout New England, but came home to the North Shore to live out the couple’s dream of raising animals, making cheese for the local community, and building their life and family on the farm.
Rather than setting their sights on major grocery chains and large-scale production, Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery aims for small-batch, high-quality products made for the locals.
“The plan was to sell to people who live nearby,” Marino says. “To have people stop by on their way home from work and grab a wedge of cheese.”
If locally produced foods really capture the taste of a place, then Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery’s farmland is absolutely delicious. Their sheep graze rotationally in pastures and woodlands so they’re always eating something fresh, resulting in happy, low-stress animals that eat a highly varied and nutritious diet.
“We put so much energy into the well-being of our animals,” Higleyand says. “I birth the animals, I raise the animals. I care deeply about them.”
That care and attention is evident both in the sheep’s quality of life and the flavor of the cheese and meat products they produce. With its natural sweetness and higher fat and protein content, the sheep’s milk is “a cheesemaker’s dream. It really exhibits the quality of what the animal is eating,” Marino says.
The sheep’s milk also doesn’t require a lot of tinkering to make excellent cheese. “I don’t fuss with it a lot,” Marino says.
“It’s very pure and true to what milk tastes like,” Higleyand agrees.
Even without a lot of “fuss,” the cheeses are delicious and distinctive, like the Pecorino-style Tilo and the softer Rospo, which has hints of brine and white mushroom. Other cheeses come and go seasonally as Marino continues to experiment.
In addition to their cheeses, Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery also sells other sheep products, including various cuts of meat and ground lamb, sheepskins, and whole animals, which are popular with local restaurants. Many of these items can be ordered online or pre-ordered for in-person pickup.
They work with Bartlett Yarns in Harmony, Maine, which uses a traditional process to wash, card, and spin the sheep’s wool into un-dyed yarns that retain their natural lanolin oils, making them especially suited to harsh New England weather. In addition to the skeins of yarn for sale, farm store visitors can find “knit kits” with patterns and yarn needed for making things like a child’s Scottish fisherman’s sweater or a seafarer’s watch cap.
Lillooet Sheep & Cheesery’s community focus is evident in the other products it carries, too, like cheeses from Dancing Goats Dairy and occasionally veggies from Iron Ox Farm in Topsfield. Other local cheeses are coming soon, too. And happily, for those looking to add beautiful local products to their holiday tables and gift-giving lists, their self-service farm stand is open year-round, seven days a week.
“The whole idea, I think from the beginning, was to be very connected with the community,” Marino says.
For more information, visit lillooetcheesery.com.