Standing Out From the Flock
February 20, 2022
Written By Jason Jenkins
As Missouri’s only commercial grass-based sheep dairy and creamery, Green Dirt Farm creates award-winning artisanal cheeses
It’s a little after 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and already the “girls” are a bit restless. There is comfort in routine for this mixed flock of Lacaune and East Friesian dairy ewes, and thanks to a talkative visitor, their routine has been delayed. They hardly need coaxed from their portable pasture enclosure; they know where they’re headed.
With the gate open, the sheep make a beeline for the holding pen adjacent the milking parlor—no shepherd required. The ewes enjoy some alfalfa hay as they await their turn. Once inside, each munches contentedly on grain while being relieved of a quart or more of milk. In less than an hour, the flock is back grazing in the pasture.
Such a scene happens twice daily for most of the year at Green Dirt Farm, located in the river hills just north of Weston, Mo. Dairy sheep have been part of the landscape of this 150-acre farm since 2002, when Sarah Hoffmann purchased her first dozen ewes and jumped headfirst into the art of cheesemaking.
“It’s just beautiful milk,” says Hoffmann, whose award-winning cheeses are sold across the country. “It has such a sweet, silky, creamy flavor with a wonderful texture. From a cheesemaker’s perspective, it’s a gorgeous milk for making cheese.”
Following a Pastoral Prerogative
Hoffman’s love of agriculture was instilled as a child. Though her father served in the U.S. Navy, he had an entrepreneurial spirit and a penchant for farming. Instead of living in naval base housing, the family would instead take up residence on small farms where they’d raise produce.
“My dad was kind of a forerunner to today’s farm-to-table experience,” Hoffman says. “When I was a teenager, we raised sweet corn and tomatoes that we sold to restaurants in Annapolis, Maryland. Of course, my brothers and sisters and I provided all the labor. From a young age, I was determined I was going to live on a farm when I grew up. I wanted my children to have that same experience because I loved it so much.”
Hoffmann went to college and earned a degree in chemistry before joining the Peace Corps, which inspired an interest in infectious and tropical diseases. That led to medical school in San Francisco, where she met her future husband, John Spertus. The pair would spend time in Seattle before eventually finding their way to the Kansas City region in 1996.
“I told him we needed to move somewhere where we could find affordable farmland within 30 miles of an academic medical center,” she recalls. “Being a Navy brat, I had never lived in the Midwest, but now I’ve lived here longer than anywhere. It really feels like my hometown.”
Two years after moving, the couple’s third child was born, and Hoffmann decided it was time to leave her career as an academic physician and begin her farming journey. She says that her initial idea was to raise organic vegetables.
“We learned pretty quick that our soil wasn’t suited for cultivation, so we started looking at other opportunities that were environmentally and economically sustainable,” Hoffmann explains. “That’s when I got the idea of a grass-based dairy and eventually making cheese. It was perfect for someone with a background in chemistry and microbiology.”
Becoming a Cheese Whiz
Though most Americans probably don’t realize it, there’s a large appetite for sheep’s milk cheeses in the United States. Traditional Old-World cheeses—such as feta from Greece, manchego from Spain, Pecorino Romano from Italy and Roquefort from France—are all produced using sheep’s milk.
“I had an aunt who ran her own cheese shop in New Jersey, and when I was in college, I’d help her out during holiday breaks,” Hoffmann says. “She taught me about fine cheese.”
Although millions of pounds of sheep’s milk products are imported every year to satiate U.S. demand, the domestic sheep dairy industry remains small. While the actual number of sheep dairies in the United States is unknown, estimates range from 75 to 100 producers, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center based at Iowa State University.
“I would say there are fewer than 10 who make cheese with sheep’s milk that they produce themselves,” says Hoffmann, who currently serves on the board of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America. “From a business perspective, it seemed there was market opportunity there.”
After six years of building up the flock and learning how to make quality cheese, Green Dirt Farm launched commercial production in 2008. Today, Hoffmann and her team offer a variety of primarily French-style sheep’s milk cheeses. They include six flavors of soft spreadable cheese similar to chevre, a goat’s milk cheese. Other cheeses include Dirt Lover, a soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheese reminiscent of French Camembert; Bossa, a washed rind “stinky” cheese; and Prairie Tomme, a hard cheese that’s been aged at least four months.
“In 2015, we added several styles of blended milk cheeses that combine both sheep and cow’s milk,” Hoffmann says. “Sheep’s milk costs four times more to produce than cow’s milk, so the blended milk cheese really helps with the economics, and it gives us something interesting to offer our customers.”
Refining the Flock
Also in 2015, Sarah and John’s oldest child, Eliza Spertus, returned to Green Dirt to become farm manager. Her primary focus has been increasing the flock’s productivity through improved genetics.
“One of the big challenges with the U.S. dairy sheep industry overall is that there aren’t a lot of top-end genetics here,” Spertus says. “Those really only exist in Europe.”
The reason for the genetic dearth stems from U.S. bans on the import of live animals, meat and genetic material from Europe during the late 1980s and 1990s. The intent was to protect the U.S. livestock industry from foot-and-mouth disease and, later, mad cow disease. With no new genetics entering the country, producers were crossbreeding animals and slowly diluting their genetic potential.
Restrictions on genetic material were eventually lifted. So, after culling back the flock to the 70 best-performing individuals, Green Dirt artificially inseminated its first ewes with French Lacaune sheep semen in 2017.
“It’s been a slow process to build our flock up again, but we’re now starting to really see the benefits,” Spertus says. “Right now, my girls average 5.5 to 7 pounds of milk per day through the whole season.”
Another goal for the farm is to split the flock into two lambing groups so that fluid sheep’s milk is available for a greater portion of the year. Unlike a dairy cow, whose lactation cycle can last for 300 days, the average length of lactation for a sheep is only 180 to 200 days.
“In 2021, we milked 70 ewes. Half lambed in February, and the other half lambed in June,” Spertus explains. “My goal this year is to milk 100 ewes from April through December, with the ultimate goal of milking 150 ewes year-round.”
One of the unique challenges when making cheese in a grass-based dairy system is that the composition and flavor of the milk change depending on the stage of lactation and the sheep’s diet. Spertus says their pastures comprise a mixture of cool-season, warm-season and native grasses, along with legumes. While this variety offers more flavor, it affords the cheesemaker less control.
“We really encourage our customers to think of it as part of the adventure and a celebration of nature,” Hoffmann says. “We do tweak our recipes as the milk evolves with the season. As an artisan cheesemaker, that’s where the art comes in.”
Introducing Green Dirt to the Crossroads
During its first full year of production in 2009, Green Dirt Farm made 3,000 pounds of cheese. By 2012, that number had increased to 18,000 pounds, and in 2016, the business opened a café and shop in Weston, serving up sandwiches, charcuterie and cheese boards, and other artisanal foods.
In 2021, the farm sold about 40,000 pounds of cheese. Hoffmann says growing the creamery has required her to become a businessperson, something she knew nothing about when she began.
“As we were figuring out how to get on more sound economic footing, a friend said to me, ‘You have to stop working in the business and start working on the business,’” she recalls. “And she was right. I needed to be out selling cheese, not making it. Now, I think in terms of how much cheese we sell instead of how much we make. It was tough to leave the kitchen behind, but I enjoy nurturing new people to become really good cheesemakers.”
The next era of growth for Green Dirt Farm is in the works. Later this year, cheese production will expand from the Weston farm to a second location in Kansas City’s East Crossroads neighborhood, affectionately known as “Brewer’s Alley” due to the burgeoning craft beer scene there.
In addition to a café and a new kitchen for hard cheeses, the facility also will feature yogurt production. Green Dirt previously produced a line of yogurt from 2012 to 2016; however, the need to maintain strict food safety protocol didn’t allow for both cheese and yogurt to be made in such close proximity on the farm.
“Sheep’s milk makes absolutely fabulous yogurt, like a thick Greek yogurt,” Hoffmann says. “This new location is the culmination of my dream to bring back our yogurt and take the next step for the business. The East Crossroads has lots of beer and spirits, but they need cheese.”
To learn more about Green Dirt Farm, visit www.greendirtfarm.com or call 816-386-2156.