Got Milk, Sheik? Creating a camel milk business
Local Couple Advocate Camel Milk at One Hump Farm
Sheik, the Arabian camel, has become something of a mascot to passersby along North Street. School buses slow down at One Hump Farm so children can wave. Neighbors choose not to move because they like looking out their window and seeing a camel. And Sheik likes looking back from his wooden-fenced corral—an enclosure he regularly leans into and often breaks, to the dismay and amusement of owner Robb Heering.
Camels are adaptable and hardy, and Sheik is no exception—though his resilience was tested early in life. When he was only two months old, he was separated from his mother and penned inside a petting zoo at a Florida fair. There, he was sedated by his handlers in order to keep him within arm’s length of children, who paid $1 for a handful of grain to feed him.
Fortunately, Sheik found a benefactor and caretaker in Heering, a native of Bethel, who happened to be strolling by. He was so moved by the poor condition of the baby camel, he bought him from the fair in 2015. Today, at eight feet tall and nearly full-grown, the four-year-old blond dromedary is now a member of the Heering family.
Robb and wife Stephanie—a 1980 graduate of Ridgefield High School, a former secretary at IBM, and now a realtor—had been living in Florida since 2012. They moved there from Southbury, after their four sons were grown, to get out of the New England weather. But fate intervened, and Heering, a lawyer by profession and serial entrepreneur by design, found himself involved in the care and feeding of one lucky young camel. For the next three years, Heering nurtured his young ward at a nearby polo-pony club where he was a member and proceeded to learn all he could about camels.
He soon discovered camel husbandry was difficult to come by—no veterinarian within spitting distance knew anything about it. In fact, Heering found only two camel farms in the country—in Missouri and Colorado—that could help. Both farms tended small herds and produced a variety of organic, all-natural products made from camel milk.
Raw camel milk—at $12 a pint—is a scarce, expensive commodity but one in high demand by certain customers. Mothers of children on the autism spectrum swear by the benefits of raw camel milk. Other customers claim the stuff has curative properties for diabetes and cancer. Some eczema sufferers find relief from the unscented body wash. Even pasteurized camel milk has supposed health benefits that include laxative properties among others.
Heering’s extensive research eventually led him to the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai, where he met with members of one of the royal families who own a large milk-producing camel farm. Heering impressed his hosts with a few phrases of Arabic, a language he learned from his Syrian-American grandfather. Called liquid gold in the Middle East, camel milk has been consumed by Bedouin, nomadic, and pastoral cultures since the domestication of camels thousands of years ago. Heering reports that in northern areas of India, where the only kind of milk consumed is from camels, diabetes does not exist.
The Heerings decided to sell their waterfront home in Palm Beach County and return to Fairfield County—they missed the seasons as well as family. Their goal was to find a bit of farmland for their newly adopted “son”—dubbed Sheik by Stephanie—and start their online business, Camel Life, which funds Camel Rescue International, a non-profit organization that educates the public about camels and saves abused camels.
No strangers to Ridgefield—Rob and Stephanie met as teenagers while working at Ridgefield Supply and were married at St. Stephen’s in 1983—the couple moved to town earlier this year. Since then, they have welcomed more than 4,000 visitors to their farm, which also houses a rescued alpaca named Humphrey, who looks very much like Sheik’s mini-me. The handsome white barn—call it a Sheik shack—that encloses the two animals was designed to add curb appeal to the property. In October, the farm hosted a pumpkin giveaway for more than 250 children. There are no formal visiting hours, but the Heerings rarely turn away visitors.
Neither does Sheik. While the 1,800-pound male camel cannot produce milk, he seems more than happy to act as the product’s ambassador.