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Lucky Ewe: Green Dirt Farm counts on sheep to make high-quality cheese and dairy products

Feast TV showcases the people and places that define the flavor of  the Midwest with a monthly half hour tour of regional food culture. Green Dirt Farm is featured in this month’s episodewhich airs on KCPT this Saturday at 2:20pm. This story by food trends writer and founder of The Recommended Daily, Jonathan Bender, was originally published by Feast Magazine

“I’m going to be a sheep farmer.” It’s the line Sarah Hoffmann had at the ready when people asked what she was going to do after she graduated with a degree in chemistry from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

In a rectangular white office ringed with binders on metal shelves, Hoffmann smiles as she remembers the flip answer of a college senior. Even a few decades later and a thousand miles away in Weston, Missouri, the joke still has legs – somewhere around 880 of them.

The sheep at Green Dirt Farm stand quietly together, a huddled mass in the pasture a few hundred yards from the front door of the office. On a winter day that has the sun of spring, Hoffmann’s boots crunch on the gravel as she steps outside and gives a nod of her tight gray curls to the “ladies,” as the ewes are known on the farm. It’s their milk that will become the washed rind Bossa or bloomy rind Dirt Lover cheeses – buttery rounds that taste of earth and the seasons.

The farm, which has been producing sheep’s milk cheese commercially for the past seven years, is a dynamic balancing act of weather, live animals and science. With Only Ewe, a sheep’s milk yogurt line that Hoffmann and her business partner, Jacqueline Smith, have grown into a regional favorite, and a fervent local following, the business is on uncommon ground. Hoffmann and Smith are striving to build an environmentally and economically sustainable dairy sheep farm.

In a paddock on the right of the gravel drive, the rams turn their heads slowly from beneath woolly manes. Their horns curl slightly like the phones that used to hang on farm kitchen walls, and they stand placidly alongside a couple llamas, there to help protect the flock from predators.

A farmhouse rises to the left of the drive a little farther in from the road, and then you come to the most common stop for visitors at Green Dirt Farm – a wooden barn with an inlaid stained-glass window near its peak, the original multipurpose barn that is now the site of regular farm dinners and cheese appreciation events that run from spring through fall.

As the flock swelled from 12 to 220 sheep during the past decade-plus, the farm expanded with it. It now sits on 150 acres – the main dairy pasture, offices, milking parlor and cheese kitchen separated from the original 25-acre plot (with the farmhouse and original barn) by a neighbor’s property and long swath of native prairie grass.

A little after lunch on a Tuesday, the bleating inside the milking parlor signals that it’s lambing season. The “ladies” will soon make their way from the 30-acre pasture into a holding pen attached to the parlor. In a wire pen bedded with straw, a baker’s dozen of lambs less than a day old greet Hoffmann. Her voice softens as she checks the building where 12 sheep are milked at a time.

That milk is then piped into a refrigerated tank that holds up to 150 gallons. It waits there until it is gravity-fed to the cheese kitchen a few paces downhill.

“Too much agitation can disturb the lipids in the milk and can lead to off-flavors in the cheese,” Hoffmann explains.

In the shiny, white cheese kitchen, the milk is hand-carried and poured into vats. The kitchen has four identical, climate-controlled 8-by-12-foot aging rooms. The effect is akin to the place where they make Wonkavision, and Hoffmann lovingly refers to the cheesemakers’ attire in their hats and white aprons as Oompa Loompa suits.

“Cheesemakers are constantly changing and growing,” Hoffmann says. “You have to embrace improvisation.”

In order to make the bloomy rind cheeses, the milk is pasteurized and then inoculated with cultures. Rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the proteins in milk, is added next. Once the milk sets, it’s cut with knives and ladled into molds. The molds are allowed to drain for 12 hours and flipped several times.

After that, the rounds are dried on a rack for about a day before being aged for 12 to 14 days at 55°F and 90 percent humidity. It’s then that they develop the telltale “bloomy surface,” a result of mold and yeast.

“A really good bloomy rind cheese has all these flavors of the farm, grass and soil and of the forest floor,” Hoffmann says. “It’s buttery and mushroomy.”

To make the washed rind cheeses, cheese is aged in the same fashion and then washed with a saltwater brine two to three times a week for five to six weeks. Though the process remains the same for each batch, there’s a flavor that Hoffmann says only crops up about 25 percent of the time.

“There’s one flavor in our cheese that’s particularly elusive,” Hoffmann says. “I call it honey nectar. I get it every once in a while, but I don’t know why yet. Maybe it’s what the sheep are eating, the time of year or the cultures we add to the cheese. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t. That’s why it’s the Holy Grail.”

The latest quest for Green Dirt Farm is to perfect Only Ewe, the three-year-old line of sheep’s milk yogurt in six flavors including its two newest, Madagascar vanilla bean and pear-apple-tarragon. It’s made with milk from sheep raised in Amish communities near Stanberry, Missouri, and Bethany, Missouri. The yogurt is currently available in grocery stores in Kansas City and St. Louis, with plans to soon expand into Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa, Wichita, Kansas and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Hoffmann grew up on a series of small farms on both coasts. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, but they rarely lived on military bases. The family worked a collection of plots in the rural corners of Annapolis, Maryland, and San Diego.

“That was where I learned about relationships with animals and food,” Hoffmann says. “I knew that was something I wanted for my children.”

That’s what she told her husband two weeks after meeting him, and why they bought a 25-acre farm in Weston in 2000. The idea, then, was to grow organic produce. Hoffmann had just finished a two-year apprenticeship under Katherine Kelly (now the executive director of Cultivate Kansas City), and the farm they purchased had existing rows of soybean and corn crops and a pair of tobacco barns. Hoffmann pictured a vegetable farm, perhaps with a small set of livestock. But a land survey showed that her initial vision wasn’t possible.

“The soil was highly erodible,” Hoffmann says. “[Crops] should have never been planted in the first place.”

The topsoil was too exposed to the elements, and the ground had been stripped of nutrients. What the ground needed was cover – the kind of grass and legumes perfect for grazing. The earth had to be rebuilt, and Hoffmann immediately thought of sheep, as their food source could help bring back the soil.

Maintaining the grass is a dance that involves weighing the seasons, topography and needs of live animals. Hoffmann has a map of the entire property detailing what’s planted where and how long the sheep have grazed in a given pasture. An internal fencing system is completely portable to continually allow for the paddocks to be shaped and moved with the demands of the farm.

Two years after they bought the farm, the first dozen sheep arrived. Hoffmann intended to crossbreed those sheep with Gulf Coast Native sheep – a nearly feral breed brought to the southern U.S. by the Spanish in the 15th century – that have the desirable and uncommon trait of being parasite-resistant.

“Trying to milk them was a real experience,” Hoffmann says of the Gulf Coast Native sheep. “I remember we were just trying to catch them to examine them and vaccinate them. I was standing in the pen, and one got so crazed that he jumped right at me and hit me right in the chest. I thought, ‘Oh my God. These sheep can fly.’”

In 2004, Hoffmann began milking the flock regularly. She bought a plastic tent from Costco – the kind you might put over a carport – and then she milked each of the 20 sheep by hand underneath it.

Green Dirt Farm slowly added pieces to the milking process. Hoffmann started experimenting with making cheese in the kitchen – during college vacations she had worked for her aunt, a cheesemonger, in her cheese shop in New Jersey.

“I knew what good cheese was, and that was important,” Hoffmann says.

By the third season of milking, Hoffmann would march six sheep up to a raised platform. The sheep would be placed in head gates (a metal device that holds the sheep by its shoulders) and then milked two at a time with a bucket milker (a pump attached to a bucket that automates the milking process).

“You have to innovate around old technology, or it’s something you dream up yourself to solve a problem,” Hoffmann says of the systems used on the farm in the early days.

In 2008, Green Dirt Farm was licensed to make cheese and produced 800 pounds (last year, the farm made around 21,000 pounds of fresh and aged cheese). Tony Glamcevski, general manager and partner at The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in Kansas City, was employed at Green Dirt Farm at the time and had the idea to begin hosting events after Hoffmann started getting requests for visits and tours.

“I fell in love with it,” Glamcevski says of the farm where he spent five years working. “It was initially about opening up to the community and trying to connect all those dots of local growers, producers, chefs and eaters.”

Open houses and tours gave way to farm dinners in the original multipurpose barn.

“Each dinner was a one-time unique experience with a new cast of characters around the table,” Glamcevski says.

Uninvited guests (like a black snake along the baseboard, a tree frog on one of the barn posts), Mother Nature (Ted Habiger, chef at Room 39 in Kansas City, once unflappably served dessert in the basement of the farmhouse after a tornado warning forced dinner guests to seek shelter across the way) and the cast of chefs (Alex Pope and Colby and Megan Garrelts among them) each played a role in ensuring that no two events were alike.

“Given the right weather and the right chef, it can be one of the most beautiful dining experiences in the country,” says Patrick Ryan, chef-owner of Port Fonda in Kansas City, who was the first chef to cook a farm dinner in 2009.

This is part of Green Dirt’s mission of transparency. Whether for a farm dinner or its semiannual tour, Hoffmann hopes to bring people in to talk about what it means to be a good steward of the soil, which is what she sees as the first step toward helping the Earth as a whole.

“It starts with the dirt,” Hoffmann says. “We need to maintain really good organic matter in the soil. That supports the root structure of the plants. Then we get really healthy plants. And once we have healthy plants, we have really happy sheep. They give us good milk and then we can make fantastic cheese and give back to our community.”

Green Dirt Farm, 19915 Mount Bethel Road, Weston, Missouri, 816.386.2156, greendirtfarm.com

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