“Farmstead.” So many cheese people think they understand this term, but do they? Yeah-yeah, it means cheese made from milk produced on a farm, but it involves so much more than that. This story is about what goes into making fine, artisan-crafted cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia. Owners Jessica and Jeremy Little hand-make goat’s milk cheeses from their herd of about 155 milking goats. The cheese plant lies in the center of a 240-acre farm, where Jeremy, (cheesemaker/co-owner), Jessica Little (co-owner) and their four boys live. And it’s a family affair — Mom and Dad raise Jersey cows down the street and around the corner. Sweet Grass also makes cow’s milk cheeses from this bounty. The entire family’s philosophy revolves around taking care of the grounds that nourish the milk-producing animals. It’s quite simple, really — healthy and happy animals make high quality milk. Great cheese flows from there. But there’s so much more…
This is a two-part story about Sweet Grass Dairy and what goes into running a farmstead cheese dairy. Read the second one here.
The Commitment to the Animals
Owning a dairy, a farm, and making cheese is more than a full time job; it’s 24/7/365 life choice. You wear numerous hats, employ many skills and tools, and it requires enormous amounts of exhausting dedication. As a farmer, you must understand soil management and earth sciences — only when you get the farm in balance can you move on to crop selection and production. A working knowledge of farm equipment and tools is a must as well. Now onto the milking facilities: You need a milking parlor, storage area, and cleaning machinery. And brush off your carpenter skills — you need sturdy fences, gates, and tracks for animal movement. Then you go out and find animals for your farm. Make sure they’re healthy, well maintained and the right breeds. A slip up will cost you so much later, i.e. herd illness, no or low milk production. Then transport them to the farm, and care for them around the clock, keeping a wary eye for trauma to the animals, as well as other safety concerns. Naturally, they need food and water — a special diet to produce the highest-quality milk. A veterinarian also needs to occasionally check for general herd health and an animal nutritionist monitors for a balanced diet.
To produce milk, the goats must be bred in order to have babies. This can be natural or artificial insemination. And plenty of decisions need to be made: Which breeds do you use as sires (daddies)? What will make your herd healthier and better milk producers? How to care for pregnant farm animals? How to birth babies? How to care for newborns, vaccinations, dehorning and other details surrounding raising babies around grown animals?
A farm doesn’t care if you’re tired. Animals don’t know it’s your anniversary. The cheese doesn’t know you’re having a crappy day. A farmstead cheesemaker must be able to manage the complete operations of a farm and sales with equal success. Around the clock, every day, without fail. If the fence is broken and the animals are escaping, you step out of your son’s birthday party and chase them (witnessed). If you’re away on business having dinner and your farm manager calls saying babies are dying, you take that call, and try to help until you can return (ditto). It’s all in the dedication.
Tomorrow: What happens after the cheese is made? How they deal with government regulations and how the product goes to market.
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