Twenty Paces is a farmstead sheep dairy and creamery located in Albemarle County between Charlottesville and Scottsville. The farm produces fresh ricotta along with four raw milk, Pecorino-style aged cheeses. Utilizing management intensive grazing methods, their grass-fed sheep herd has grown each year and they will be milking 135 ewes in 2019. They raise East Friesian sheep, a German breed well-known for its high producing milk yield per ewe.
Twenty Paces cheeses are featured in retail shops, restaurants, and several distributors in Virginia and up and down the east coast along with Chicago and California. For the first several years they made cheese from both goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, but they sold off their goat herd in 2018 and are now focusing solely on sheep’s milk.
Owners Kyle Kilduff, Tom Pyne, Melanie Pyne, and Bridge Cox came together in 2013 to combine their experience of small ruminant dairying and cheese making to create Twenty Paces. Tom and Melanie had worked on several goat dairies after college and Tom graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in agronomy. Bridge and Kyle worked on vegetable operations and grass-fed beef production in their past. They also both gained valuable cheese making experience working for several years at nearby Caromont Farm, a successful goat cheese business run by Gail Hobbs Page.
The farm is located on a 900-acre property owned by Cynthia Davis. This property, known as Bellair, has been a working farm since the 17th century and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The property is also home to Bellair Farm, one of the more well-established and successful organic produce farms and CSAs in the region. Twenty Paces farms about 175 acres of this property, most of it non-arable pasture and woods, which is a testament to the regenerative benefits of holistic livestock management in a diverse agricultural ecosystem. The farm got its name as somewhat of a joke at the beginning when they were trying to delineate which fields on Bellair Farm they would use. They would quip that their’s was “twenty paces from the ol’ oak tree.” The name stuck. The creamery was completed in 2015, and their first batch of cheese was produced in 2016.
Even though Twenty Paces is a farm business, it could best be compared to a winery in the sense that they not only manage a milk producing herd, but they process that milk in a creamery, age it, and then distribute it nationwide. Just as a fine wine expresses the quality of the fruit in the vineyard, making great cheese is the end-result of nurturing animals through holistic practices that articulates the terroir of the region. This is easier said than done. Producing cheese from sheep’s milk is a challenging task due to the intensive capital requirements at start-up, lower production compared to cow and goats milk, and the need to maintain quality genetics in the herd. There are less than 50 sheep cheese producers in the U.S. which creates ample opportunity for those that can reach maturity, as Twenty Paces seems poised to do. They believe that eliminating goat’s milk from their cheese will make their product even more distinctive and highly demanded by cheese shops and chefs.
The 0% SOIL Loan that Twenty Paces received from Slow Money Virginia in March 2019 is being used to purchase additional ewe lambs to help them increase production and grow revenue. Their goals is to reach a flock size of 200 ewe lambs, a size they believe will allow the business to thrive for the long term. While they’ve had success increasing the flock from on-farm breeding, it can be a long-term process due to the unpredictability of gender and genetic outcomes.
Below are some pictures of the sheep purchased with the SOIL loan, after they arrived at Twenty Paces in Fall 2019: