Happy Sheep Lead to Happy Cheese on Missouri's Green Dirt Farm

A creamy smear of rosemary-scented sheep milk cheese. A wedge of cream encased in a soft, ashy rind. A buttery slice of ewe milk atop a crispy crostini. The brightly colored packages of Green Dirt Farms' cheeses line up in a haphazard array of pastels begging to be sampled.

I didn't know where to begin my taste test so I went with the owner's, Sarah Hoffmann, suggestion to try the blended milk Ruby cheese. "I just think that one is just so luscious and buttery especially when the cows are fully on grass and the milk is that beautiful golden-yellow color."

With full confidence in the recommendation, I dove in. True to Hoffmann's description, the buttery interior of the cheese was irresistible. Naturally, I couldn't resist asking Hoffmann how she got into small production sheep milk cheese making; I assumed she has grown up in the business.

Her response was not in line with my expectations. "Since I was a teenager I've been telling people that I will have a sheep farm," Hoffmann explained. That admission was not, however, the surprising revelation. As Hoffmann continued telling her story she revealed, "I practiced medicine for about 10 years before I made the decision to jump off that career track and try something new." And clearly it was the right decision.

A New Beginning

With a decade of health care training under her belt, it was only natural that Hoffmann's approach to dairying kept the well-being of her sheep at the forefront of her conscience. In Weston, Missouri, she got to work.

"When I started the farm back in 2002, my emphasis was really on: I wanted to make artisan cheese. I really had a strong ethic to do it in an environmentally conscious way and also in a humane way. So that's where we started from, with the idea that we were going to produce artisan cheeses with milk that was sourced from animals that were raised humanely and on ground that was well cared for."

True to her word, the soil really is the foundation for everything at Green Dirt Farms. Hoffmann's vigilance has allowed her farmland to maintain a toxin-free soil from which the sheep graze on wild grasses. She attributes the happiness of her flock and the quality of their milk to the way in which they experience life on the farm.

"Our sheep will be out on that experiencing life the way sheep ought to experience it and they'll be happy and they'll produce fantastic milk and that milk, in turn, will create really marvelous cheeses for us," she says.

Not only that, but the steady diet of grass concentrates a lot more flavor compounds into the sheep milk than you would see with animals who are fed a conventional diet. For Hoffmann, maintaining this diet is the key to cultivating the layers of flavor in her cheeses.

"Having more of those flavor compounds in the milk makes a world of difference when you're making the cheese because the cheese ends up having a lot more flavor in it," she insisted.

Ethics Will Cost You

Despite her dedication to ethical practices and happy sheep, Hoffmann admits that sometimes even she wonders if it wouldn't be easier to use modern chemicals to help increase production and help alleviate the farm's growing pains. "I do believe that it's hard to maintain that kind of ethic and scale. Growing forces you to make hard decisions on what ideals you're going to let go of," she admits.

In fact, the diametrically opposed forces of economics and ethics appear to be a well-known point of contingency within the industry. "If you talk to almost every artisan cheesemaker I know it's [economic sustainability] a real struggle, a real challenge."

To put it in perspective, Hoffmann offered some comparative numbers. Last year, Green Dirt Farms produced 25,000 pounds of cheese with a 5 days a week production schedule. Though this may seem like a fair amount of dairy product, if you compare it to an industry leader like Kraft who produces almost a million pounds of cheese per day, 25,000 pounds pales in comparison.

Couple this with the fact that sheep milk cheeses remain an under-praised dairy alternative and it is a miracle that Green Dirt Farms has managed to carve its own path into the hearts of dairy lovers over the last 15 years.

Hoffmann, however, is not surprised. For her, quality is a point of pride and the results of consistent quality will speak for themselves. Just try one of her cheeses. You'll see.

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