For the last year or so these boards have been in an uproar. Why? Some farmers have introduced a new hybrid sheep which produces up to three times the milk per season as the latxa. Can this milk be used in the DO cheeses? Is Idiazabal still Idiazabal if the milk is not from latxa sheep? Which is a greater priority, conserving local breeds or keeping small cheeseries alive? Loyalty to tradition or broadening of markets? The responses are not easy and reflect the dilemmas of a changing rural reality, with repercussions from land use to labor rights.
The Family Farm
I discovered this conflict when I happened to be in Orbaitzeta, a village deep in the Aezkoa valley known for its artisan cheese. Whereas once there were many family cheese-makers in this valley, which falls within the Idiazabal DO area, now only two remain. Both are completely family run. Rosa María, co-proprietor of the Arrazolako Gazta cheesery, explained how she and her husband care for and milk their flock of some 500 latxa sheep, make the cheese and sell it, all without the help of any hired hands. The work, which is continuous, provides just enough income to stay in business. They could expand the flock, increase production, and hire someone to help, but according to their estimations the increase in profit relative to the increase in expenses wouldn't pay off: better to keep it small and do the work themselves. For the couple, this year-long devotion to the flock is worthwhile to keep the tradition alive, but their teenage daughters have made it quite clear that they hope for jobs with benefits and paid vacations, and have no intention of doing the morning milking every day of the year. It is likely the cheesery will not survive this generation.
Rosa María is a firm defender of the latxa sheep, but other family farms faced with similar situations are beginning to feel the lure of imported sheep breeds. The imported breeds are much more productive: With less labor, a farm yields more milk, makes more cheese, enjoys greater profits, and can hire help to offset the demands of farm life, making it more appealing to the younger generation.
Enter the assaf sheep.
The assaf is a product of the intensive agricultural experimentation in the early years of the Israeli state, a tremendously productive hybrid of German and Egyptian breeds. In the 1970's a Spanish priest in Jerusalem took note of the qualities of this breed and imported an original flock of 500 lambs to Spain, where they were gradually adopted in Castilian farms. In large swathes of Castile, the assaf--or mixes of assaf with local breeds--have completely displaced the indigenous Castilian or churra sheep. Their requirements are consonant with the industrialization of rural production and the fencing of the old transhumant routes; they prosper in stables rather than grazing in the open, no need for shepherds, no need for seasonal migrations, with milk production occurring all year long. And with this industrial production comes the corresponding contamination and reliance on non-local feed. Moreover, if the milk of these foreign breeds is admitted, it will be nearly impossible for those who raise indigenous breeds to compete, and these breeds will in all likelihood be lost, as has already occurred with several of the indigenous Iberian breeds of cattle.