Happy Critters & Great Cheese in Warren County: Meet Sheila Flanagan of Nettle Meadow

Nettle Meadow is an award-winning sanctuary farm located in Thurman, New York. It is home to more than a hundred sanctuary animals and is committed to the principles of natural ingredients, happy and healthy animals, and carefully hand-crafted artisan cheeses.

The sanctuary farm is owned and operated by Sheila Flanagan and Lorraine Lambiase, transplants from California who drove across the country leaving their careers in the legal profession behind to pursue something “more meaningful and creative” that would bring them closer to animals and nature. They grew the operation from 36 goats to more than 500 goats, more than 250 sheep, 30 cows, and a variety of sanctuary animals and recently gained access to broadband internet, which was one of their biggest pain points when it came to growing their business.

“EDC worked with internet provider SLIC Network Solutions to obtain an easement on county-owned land at Thurman Station to locate a fiber optic switch cabinet to service the north & western portions of Warren County,” says John Wheatley, Vice President of Warren County EDC.

“We coordinated with the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator and Warren County DPW on details they needed to provide this important service that is so badly needed in the mostly rural and mountainous areas of the county that has not had reliable service,” he adds. “With the activation of this switch, EDC is proud to have helped play a role in providing high-speed internet fiber-optic service to hundreds of homes in Warren County that in many cases, never had access before.”

We interviewed Sheila to learn more about doing business in Warren County, with now being the right time to shine a light on Warren County EDC’s mission to bring broadband to the North Country.

Tells us about your background and how you came to Nettle Meadow.

Lorraine and I are originally from the East Coast (New Jersey and Connecticut specifically) but we each spent 20 years in Northern California before moving to Warren County to purchase what had been a modest goat farm with a good reputation and regional footprint. We had both worked in the legal field and were looking for a more meaningful and creative next chapter that brought us closer to our animals and nature.

Why did you choose Warren County for your business?

I found an advertisement on a commercial website for the sale of Nettle Meadow Farm in the Spring of 1995. The price was modest compared to similar establishments on the West Coast where we lived, and coming to upstate New York would bring us much closer to our aging parents and other relatives.

Tell us about what your products and operation.

We make a wide variety of cheese. What started as mostly goat cheese has expanded over the last 16 years to cow, goat, and sheep milk cheeses and mixed milk cheeses. We sell fresh cupped cheeses of Chevre, Fromage blanc, mixed milk cheeses, and cow cheese at many local retail locations.

We sell bloomy-rind semi-aged cheeses all around the country. Our Kunik, which is a triple cream goat’s milk with cow cream, has won many major awards both nationally and internationally, as have several other bloomy rind cheeses we make. We also make a selection of washed-rind cheeses as well. The full assortment of our selections are on display at our newer retail location at the old Hitching Post in Lake Luzerne and also at the original farm in Thurman.

We started out with 36 goats and two barns and quickly grew. In all, we have well over 500 goats now, more than 250 sheep, more than 30 jersey cows, and a variety of sanctuary animals. As we have grown larger and larger, we have partnered with local farm families who now lease most of our production sheep and goats, and we maintain a farm of mostly sanctuary animals and retirees who had spent their lives producing milk to supply the cheeses we have made over the years.

We continue to take in farm animals who need a caring home and welcome home our goats and sheep when they return to us after several years of production. It is a retirement program that Lorraine and I wish we had for ourselves!

How has access to broadband made an impact on your business?

Broadband and internet access has been an ongoing challenge for us over the 16 years we have been growing Nettle Meadow. From the very beginning when we first tried building a website and were trying to participate in the Williams Sonoma holiday catalog in the early years, we have always been painfully aware of how limited we are by broadband access.

In the early days, I used to get up at 2 a.m. to start to download Williams Sonoma orders online so that we could have all the labels printed by the time that UPS arrived at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. As time has gone on, we have had some improvements, first with White Space in Thurman, and then with a somewhat faster Hughes net service. When we began moving parts of the company to the Lake Luzerne location, we were thrilled that the broadband access there was fast enough to allow us to participate in Zoom meetings and Zoom sales presentations, especially as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have taken hold of our industry. If we did not have our site at the Hitching Post in Lake Luzerne, we would not have been able to participate on an equal footing with other national cheese companies.

We are particularly excited that SLIC will soon be at our location in Thurman, as so much of the accounting and administrative work of our company still happens at the original farm site in Thurman on South Johnsburg Road.

What challenges have you overcome doing business in a rural setting, and what advantages does the countryside offer?

Our biggest challenges have been broadband and proximity to urban delivery locations from our remote mountain location. With the recent improvements in broadband and the new location on 9N, we are overcoming both of these long-term challenges this year just in the nick of time with the extra layer of challenges due to COVID-19.

How has Warren County EDC helped you?

Warren County EDC has been a huge help to us over the years promoting our business and providing us with a loan to expand our company and help make a move to the much larger location at the old Hitching Post in Lake Luzerne.

The EDC really goes out of its way to promote and assist growing companies in our region and in this way provides a much stronger and more stable occupational base for the citizens of this county.

What is unique about Warren County?

Warren County is a wonderful bridge to the Adirondacks with the industry and conveniences of Glens Falls and Queensbury and the amazing beauty and adventure of locations like Lake George, the Hudson River, and the many magnificent mountains in our region. The region also offers a creative and hard-working community of people who live here year-round and have helped us create the infrastructure that allows us to sell cheese across fifty states and a marvelous collection of seasonal visitors that come to visit the sanctuary animals and purchase cheese each year.

Can you share some information about your sanctuary and visiting the farm?

We have essentially run a sanctuary since we first arrived here and realized that some of our 16 working goats were in need of immediate retirement. That same year, we had some physically challenged goat kids, and neighbors asked us to take on some additional challenged creatures and with that, the sanctuary was born.

We currently have more than 135 sanctuary animals and are expecting another 26 additions in the coming weeks. It takes several people to care for each of the animals and veterinary care and animal feed is constantly cutting into any profit we may have from our cheese sales. This was particularly true over the last year during the pandemic when cheese sales were scarce but a number of wonderful people have made several generous gifts over the last year which has literally kept the animals going. They, and we, are extremely grateful for everyone’s generosity during this difficult time.

We currently have leaflets and a map for anyone who is interested in visiting the animals between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We find that self-guided tours seem to be the safest socially-distanced option for people to visit the critters. During the first few months of the pandemic when we were discouraging visitors to protect the staff and the community, we found that the animals seemed depressed to have no visitors and we have found a real uptick in their attitude as we have been able to re-open the doors.

What else would you like folks to know?

People should know that we are hard at work on the construction of the Hitching Post location and we hope that soon, in addition to our beautiful retail store, that we will be able to open the Tavern/Tasting Room and the larger plant once the construction is completed in late Spring or Summer. The location served as a dining hall, bar, general store, and hotel to the dude ranches in the 1940s and beyond and holds fond memories for many residents and visitors to the area. We are excited to have the wonderful old building up and running once again very soon.