Under the watchful eye of six livestock guardian dogs, a flock of docile sheep graze on the wispy, golden grasses of Green Dirt Farm.
The 150-acre farm, named after its rich soil, is nestled along the rolling pastures of Weston along Mt. Bethel Road, just a stone’s throw away from the Snow Creek ski resort.
Green Dirt Farm, founded by Sarah Hoffman, has been producing award-winning sheep’s milk cheese for 11 years. It’s one of roughly 60 sheep dairies in the country. Although Sarah Hoffman thrived as an academic physician in Kansas City, she relished the thought of raising her kids on a farm where they could be more in touch with the natural world.
After the birth of her third child, Hoffman left her job in the city to follow her innate desire to pursue a new lifestyle and live in the country. It’s that bold mindset and deep respect for animals that sparked the idea of an environmentally sustainable sheep dairy.
Based on her formative years growing up on a farm and learning the ins and outs of selling gourmet cheese at her aunt’s New Jersey cheese shop, Hoffman set out in 2002 to build up a flock and assemble the necessary infrastructure to milk sheep and make cheese. She also relied heavily on her passion for microbiology and botany.
But the road to success didn’t happen overnight. It would be another six years before the farm reaped the benefits of its first small-scale commercial production.
“That first year, the farm sold 800 pounds of cheese,” said Alix Hoylman, events director at Green Dirt Farm.
The sheep dairy farm plans on selling 35,000 pounds of cheese this year, and next year it anticipates increasing its sales by another 10,000 pounds.
Today, 200 sheep live at Green Dirt Farm, but only about 60 produce milk. “A lot of lambs were just born this spring or early summer, so they are future milk producers,” said Hoylman.
Milking routine During peak milk production months, three border collies round up the sheep twice a day, once at 6 a.m. and again at 6 p.m., and guide them into a holding pen.
Twelve sheep at a time are directed into the milking parlor, where pumps are secured to their teats.
But unlike cows, who have four teats and produce up to eight gallons a day, sheep have two and produce only 4-6 pints per teat per day, said Hoylman.
That’s why sheep’s milk cheese will cost about five times more than traditional cow’s milk cheese, she added.
The entire milk pumping process takes roughly 90 seconds, said Hoylman. After the sheep have done their part, they are rewarded with a grain-based treat from the trough and sent back out into the pasture.
The sheep’s milk is pumped into a refrigerated reservoir where it is stored until the cheese making process.
“The one really good thing about sheep’s milk is that it’s more concentrated and higher in fat than cow’s milk, which allows you to make more cheese with less milk,” said Alix Hoylman.
With cow’s milk, from milk to cheese yield is about 10 percent. With sheep’s milk. it’s about 18 percent, so you’re getting about eight percent more cheese for the same amount of milk.”
This week, female sheep will stop producing milk until after lambing next spring. That makes winter cheese production challenging. That’s why Green Dirt Farms has teamed up with a cow’s milk dairy out of Cameron to make blended cheeses, like Winter Woolly, for the holiday rush.
Over time, Hoffman has refined her cheese recipes. Still, the taste of the cheese can vary each season, especially when the farm supplements the sheep’s diet with hay during extreme weather, said Hoylman. Many are quick to point out it is that atypical element that makes it artisan.
Majority of the time, the sheep feast on nutritious pasture grasses, while engaging in natural behaviors.
The dairy farm’s pasture-based living conditions earned Green Dirt Farm the Animal Welfare Approved® dairy farm. The recognition is a step above certified organic.
Cheese making process At Green Dirt Farm, the cheese making process begins by slowly feeding the sheep milk into a large basin with salt, cultures and rennet. The ingredients are heated until solid lumps in the milk, called curds, separate from the whey, the liquid substance. Once the curds are raked off the top, they are cut into a variety of sizes–depending on the type of cheese it will become—and ladled into a mold and pressed.
Although rinds form naturally on the outside shell of the cheese, substances like vegetable ash are sometimes dusted along the edge to add flavor and color during the aging process.
“Younger cheeses are stored in our aging room anywhere from a week to six weeks, and our aged cheeses are stored for four to 12 months,” said Hoylman. But one of Dirt Farm’s most popular cheeses isn’t aged at all. Fresh spreadable cheese, a rich creamy cheese, is cultivated in just 28 hours and is devoured in seconds.
Green Dirt Farm continues to grow year after year. Just four years ago, it added a creamery at 1099 Welt Street, just east of historic downtown Weston, where people can buy and taste award-winning products.
Today, Green Dirt Farm has 12 full-time employees who help milk the sheep, cultivate cheese and operate the Green Dirt Farm Creamery.
Their products are sold inside grocery stores all over the country, including here locally at HyVee and Price Chopper.
Green Dirt Farm also sells a wide variety of cheeses online.
Onsite tours Visitors who come to Green Dirt Farm for a one-hour tour get to take a closer look at many aspects of the cheese making process. Of course, the highlight of the tour is sampling a few of Green Dirt Farm’s premium products, including Dirt Lover, Winter Woolly and a plain fresh spreadable cheese. Tours can be booked online and cost $15 a person.
At 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, Green Dirt Farm is hosting a whiskey and cheese tasting class at the Green Dirt Farm Creamery. Gary Hinegardner with Wood Hat Spirits will attend the event and offer samples of Wood Hat Spirits.
But those who missed out on that event will have another opportunity to visit the creamery on Nov. 20 for a build-your-own cheese board workshop. Guests will be taught how to design the perfect cheese board for any holiday party.