Of Milk and Honey
A farmer has to start somewhere. One way to learn the ropes for a newbie may be through mentoring or the rural version of the unpaid internship.
Before Sophie Burova established the 56-hectare Secret Lands Farm sheep dairy in 2013 with her husband, Alexander Burov, farming was the last thing on her mind. All the Russian native knew about dairy products was in the eating; the tangy kefir and sweet, caramel flavour of slow-baked yogurt she enjoyed as a treat from childhood.
It took time and commitment, but Sophie, 52 and Alexander, 54, now operate a 300-head sheep dairy operation about 135 kilometres from Toronto. They make old-world-style products inspired by their homeland, cheese they enjoyed on holidays in Greece, inspired by what Sophie learned in an Italian cheese-making course.
Included in their line of food is probiotic-rich sheep’s milk kefir, which they also use as the starter for their yogurt and unripened Italian Caciotta, Robiola and Stracchino cheeses, as well as aged Pecorino.
“It’s a sad story,” Burova says of how she went from fashion merchandizing in Moscow to making Secret Lands’ products for more than a dozen Toronto farmers’ markets.
She and Alexander hastily left Russia for Toronto in September 2007 after their 23-year-old son was seriously injured in a car crash. Ilgiz Burov, who had been studying at York University, didn’t survive.
A grieving Burova said her life was turned upside down by the loss of her eldest son. She and Burov, along with their 11-year-old son, Renat Burov, eventually decided to stay in Toronto.
It wasn’t easy, but Burova found some comfort in weekend shopping trips to the St. Lawrence Market, which echoed what she did with her mother at home.
“In Russia, most of the time and even when I was a kid, my mom always went to the farmers’ market to buy fresh milk,” she says, adding, “in our family we’re a little bit crazy about healthy food — in a good way.”
She discovered urban farmers’ markets across the city where she could satisfy her family's passion for fresh, local food and chat with vendors who sold her the sheep’s milk products she loved.
A friend suggested checking out the Saturday market at the Evergreen Brick Works.
“I’d never heard of it,” Burova says. “We came and it was an amazing market. I had never seen anything like that in Canada.”
She suddenly hit on a plan. “I didn’t know where it came from, I believe from God,” she says. She envisioned them all living in rural Ontario, maybe on a hobby farm with a few sheep to milk, a dream that quickly grew into something bigger.
They asked a lamb vendor at the Evergreen Brick Works market if he knew anyone with a sheep dairy farm. He suggested Axel Meister, owner of WoolDrift Farm in Markdale, Grey County with his wife, Chris Buschbeck. They were pioneers in the business, having started the first commercial sheep dairy in North America in 1995.
In the spring of 2013, Burova called Meister and asked him if he would teach them about running a dairy farm. Meister said they were welcome to visit when his purebred East Friesian ewes were in the milking parlour, starting at 7 a.m. Burova and Burov left Toronto before dawn to be there.
“I had never had fresh sheep’s milk before,” Burova says. “I had bought it in plastic bottles, but it wasn’t the same. It was just… I started drinking the milk and I couldn’t stop. It’s the best milk I'd ever had in my life. So sweet, so rich, so fresh.”
Understandably, Burova says, Meister was a bit suspicious of these strangers who seemed determined to start their own dairy without any prior knowledge of farming.
“I thought, they’re crazy. They said 'we want to have 1,000 sheep' and I said, 'that’s not going to happen',” Meister recalls with a chuckle.
They spent more time with him. Burova did her research.
“They were kind of green-green,” said Meister, who often mentors people curious about sheep dairy farming. His website includes a link on how to get started in the industry.
“They had no clue about anything agricultural,” he says, “While that’s not unheard of, it’s rare.”
At his suggestion, Burova attended a dairy sheep symposium through the University of Guelph, where she met people from around the world and talked to them about farming and production. She went to Italy to study cheese-making. She studied as much as she could.
“If you put that much money behind your things and you don’t know what you’re doing you can lose quite a bit in a hurry,” Meister said. “It’s always good to at least associate with people that know things and if you can, take a course.”
Burova was also taken with Meister’s kefir, a healthy, buttermilklike fermented drink that has its origins in Russia. He gave her some of the chunky starter “grains” so she could experiment with making her own.
Other area farmers added their wisdom.
The family bought the already-named Secret Lands Farm in October 2013. Located not far from Meister’s property, he sold them the 32 purebred East Friesian sheep that started the dairy.
The 100-year-old house and barn were in good condition, but they had to build a milking parlour and creamery. Last year, they added an aging room for the Pecorino cheese.
Sheep’s milk is naturally sweet and higher in fat and protein than cow’s or goat’s milk, as well as an alternative for those unable to digest cow’s milk. Because a sheep only gives about two litres a day, the milk is about four times the price of what comes from more prolific cows. So sheep’s milk products are more expensive to make.
“I am learning every day with observation,” Sophie says, adding she insisted the farm operation be hormone, antibiotic and GMO-free. Eventually, she hopes to be certified organic.
“You need to adjust everything according to the season, the weather,” Burova says. “We are not using stabilizers or chemicals or regulating the fat content of the milk. We are using very oldfashioned methods."
The sheep graze on pesticide-free grass. During winter, they eat haylage grown on the farm. After shearing, their fleece is used as insulation in the barns.
In April 2015, Burova started selling yogurt, kefir and fresh cheeses at farmers’ markets at Wychwood Barns and Edwards Gardens. At first, she felt like a stranger in the tight-knit community of vendors and customers. English was sometimes a struggle. She made mistakes. It was so much work, driving back and forth from Toronto to the farm. People sometimes balked at the price, not realizing how much more costly sheep’s milk is than cow’s milk.
Burova was thrilled when customers started returning to her stand with stories of how much better they felt after adding her kefir to their diets. The vendors made her feel welcome and part of the community.
The farm also produces lamb and Burova makes and sells German- style lamb sausages made with eggs, wine and spices.
“My home kitchen is my lab, doing small batches,” said Burova, who spent a year perfecting the recipe for her baked yogurt, which she cooks over very low heat overnight in a water bath to reach the proper thick and ultra-creamy consistency. The subtle sweetness comes as the sugar caramelizes. She calls it “the healthiest crème brûlée.”
“To be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to have this in Russia the way we did it here, not just the people, all the farmers sharing knowledge and being so welcoming with their hospitality and their attitude, their openness and the way they spent time with us and answering our stupid questions,” Burova says.
“Even when we came to the farm, all the people around us, they were so helpful, so supportive,” she adds.
It’s not an easy life. She’s up at dawn and logs long hours on the road going to markets. They now have a farm worker and two people in the kitchen to help, along with five people who staff Secret Lands’ Toronto market stalls in addition to Burov and Burova.
Along with his father, Renat works with the animals and in the dairy.
The black-and-white logo for Secret Lands Farm was designed by Ilgiz’s girlfriend, an image of peaceful contentment; two smiling sheep, nuzzling each other.
“I’m so happy that we made the decision to move from Toronto,” Burova says. “I feel a part of the country. I feel myself Canadian now. It’s just amazing.”
Secret Lands Farm
733782 West Back Line, Proton Station, Ont.