Made with free-range sheep milk, Garden Variety Cheese proves it’s anything but

The Garden Variety Cheese stall at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market.
(Jean Yi / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Garden Variety Cheese has been a farmers market mainstay for over a decade. The cheese brand is the brainchild of Rebecca King’s Monkeyflower Ranch, based in Royal Oaks. Along with sheep cheese and yogurt, King sells pork, lamb and eggs.

Every part of Rebecca King’s Monkeyflower Ranch sustains another. The pigs eat leftover whey from the cheesemaking process, as well as spent grains from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Chickens eat pests and fertilize the orchards.

King started the business in Watsonville in 2007 with 50 dairy sheep and began selling aged cheese under the name Garden Variety Cheese in 2009. She added fresh cheese and yogurt a few years later.

Along with dairy products, the farm — now based in Royal Oaks, in north Monterey County outside Watsonville — also sells pork, lamb and eggs. Garden Variety Cheese’s stall at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market sells cheeses named whimsically after flowers — like Black-Eyed Susan or Daffodil — that retail for about $10 per piece, or $20 to $30 per pound. It also sells larger quantities of feta, halloumi and ricotta as well as eggs and yogurt, including frozen yogurt popsicles. Pork roasts, bacon, chops and sausage retail from $10 to $20 per pound.

Farmers markets, which have sold King’s products for 14 years, are a key part of Garden Variety Cheese’s direct-to-customer relationship. “We have a lot of customers who’ve been regularly buying our yogurt and cheese and other products on a weekly basis for years,” she said.

Customers can visit Monkeyflower Ranch during open houses held about once a season (the most recent was in May). The farm also hosts summer tours during which visitors can see the animals and watch how the cheese is made, with a cheese tasting at the end. There’s a farm dinner series for 30 to 40 people roughly once every six weeks, featuring products from the farm in a seasonal, Mediterranean-inspired menu; the next one is set for Saturday, July 8.

The farm dinner series was inspired by King’s background as a chef, which she pursued along with her career as a farmer. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, she studied biology and environmental studies. An internship at a goat dairy farm that made cheese for local farmers markets piqued her interest in sustainable, pastured dairy.

After graduating in 1997, King worked at vegetable and animal farms in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Yolo County, in the Sacramento Valley. The bountiful amounts of fresh produce that she helped grow got her interested in the food as well as the farming. She attended the now-shuttered California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked at Gabriella Cafe, the downtown Santa Cruz Italian restaurant that sources almost all of its produce from local farmers markets.

Garden Variety Cheese products for sale at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market.
(Jean Yi / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sheep dairy products are more expensive to produce, according to King, because dairy sheep are still not widely available and do not produce as much milk. Sheep cheese was more of a European phenomenon when King first started because of well-known cheeses like manchego, Roquefort and pecorino romano.

Even the more popular goat cheese was a novelty in the United States when King was starting out. But the market has grown over the past few decades. “There’s a lot more people who are aware of sheep milk cheese and are looking for it and willing to pay a premium for it,” said King.

One reason for the growing appeal is that many people with lactose intolerance report that they can better tolerate sheep dairy over cow. But a 2021 study found no difference in symptoms when lactose-intolerant people drank sheep milk versus cow milk, and their lactose content is virtually identical. However, sheep milk does have higher levels of protein, calcium and phosphorus.

When it comes to taste, King says sheep dairy is nuttier and sweeter than cow. Garden Variety’s sheep yogurt popsicle did seem more creamy and cheesy than regular frozen yogurt. The subtle hint of maple and vanilla let the yogurt flavor shine.

Garden Variety Cheese can be found at the downtown Santa Cruz market on Wednesdays, as well as Staff of Life Natural Food Market’s Santa Cruz location and at New Leaf Community Markets’ Capitola location. Find more information at its website.