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Sarah Hoffmann and Jacqueline Smith raise more than 600 sheep on the 250-acre Green Dirt Farm located on the rolling hills near Weston. With little experience, the two agriculturally minded entrepreneurs dove headfirst into raising sheep. “We wanted to have a different life, a farming life,” Jacqueline says.
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Milk from sheep has a higher percentage of solids compared to cow’s milk, which makes sheep’s milk great for cheese. Because sheep eat a variety of legumes and grasses, season—not diet—is the best predictor of how a cheese will turn out. Each batch is palate-tested.
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Here, Bob Fraundorfer milks a few of the more than 250 milking ewes. The process takes more than eight hours each day and has two shifts at 6 am and 6 pm. The milk collected will make its way to the kitchen the next day where the cheese-making process begins.
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Before milking, the sheep are gathered into holding pens as they await their turn in the milking barn. At other times, they graze inside pastures that are divided by portable, solar-powered electric fences. The sheep rotate to a new grazing area every day. Pasture sections rest for more than ninety days before the sheep revisit them. The schedule encourages deep root growth and more even grazing.
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The 250 milking ewes lactate for about 250 days, and the characteristics of their milk vary by season. In spring, the grasses that the sheep eat contain more water and produce more liquid. In the fall, the drier grass will produce milk with higher solids and less water. Certain characteristics are best for certain cheeses.
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Once the milk is collected into a bulk tank, it is eventually fed down into the cheese kitchen. It is then poured slowly into the vat pasteurizer and heated. Cultures and rennet are added to the milk to produce curds and whey. Here, Michael Salzman oversees the process.
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The curds are scooped from the vat pasteurizer into round cheese molds. Here, Michael and Sarah Hoffmann drain the whey from the curds by flipping the molds. Other types of cheese are pressed or hung in straining bags to drain. The process takes about twelve hours.
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The cheese is removed from the molds and spends a day or more in the drying room. Finally, the wheels enter the cheese cave to age. When customers purchase the cheese, it will continue to age in the fridge until it peaks.
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Green Dirt Farm sells cheese at Kansas City-area farmers’ markets; at select Kansas City, St. Louis, and Kansas locations; and online at greendirtfarm.com.
By David Cawthon
Where others saw rows of soybeans and corn on the land that would become Green Dirt Farm, two friends saw a sheep creamery and cheese-making oasis. In 1998, Jacqueline Smith, a recent college graduate, and Sarah Hoffmann, a physician, knew almost nothing about making cheese or the intricacies of farming. But that didn’t stop them from following their ambitions, ditching the nine-to-five grind, and starting their business.
The farmland lacked a water system and a barn and required major replanting to make the pastures suitable for raising flocks of sheep. The nearby town of Weston was historically steeped in tobacco production, and most locals weren’t experts on raising sheep. That year, when the co-owners founded Green Dirt Farm, all the duo knew was that they wanted to cultivate a family-centric business on beautiful farmland and indulge in their love of cheese. Each of their families live and work on the farm, though Sarah’s husband works elsewhere.
Their dream gave them a start, but it took time to build the infrastructure and learn the intricacies of agriculture. Ten years after its inception, Green Dirt became a licensed cheese-making facility and, later, a grade-A facility that also produces sheep’s milk.
“We had a tremendous amount to learn, from greasing tractors to writing business plans,” Jacqueline says.
Today, Green Dirt Farm is part art and part science, relying heavily on old-world techniques to produce artisan cheeses. Located in the Missouri River Valley’s rolling hills, this grass-fed sheep dairy, creamery, and farmstead is one of only a handful like it in the nation.
The topography of Northwest Missouri is well-suited for raising rams and ewes. Jacqueline and Sarah’s grazing system fosters deep-rooted plants, which is central to their cheese production.
The fields are a sheep’s salad bar of pesticide-free legumes and grasses. Grazing patterns, the milk’s chemistry, and aging the cheese are some parts the process that they’ve perfected since they began. Life at Green Dirt Farm begins at daybreak, as does our story.