In the fall of 1994, Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read decided that commuting to the Cities from their Carver home had grown old. While exploring alternatives, Steven discovered an article about raising sheep. It seemed like something they could manage, so they bought a dairy ram and a small flock of sheep, and Shepherd’s Way Farms was born.
And manage it they did: By 1998 the couple was making cheese; in 2001, they moved the farm to Nerstrand, MN, and set up as a homestead cheese dairy; and by 2004, Jodi Read’s hand-crafted artisanal cheeses were winning awards widely and the farm was one of the largest dairy sheep operations in North America.
Then, five years ago this month, an arson fire burned all of the Read’s livestock housing, killing more than 500 East Friesian-cross ewes and lambs. A devastating loss of life, but also living; without the lambs, no milk — and without the barn, there was nowhere to milk the ewes had they not been dry.
In the ensuing years, the Reads, active supporters of local, sustainable food and the slow food and slow money movements, have been able to rescue a dairy barn from the nearby Big Woods State Park for the sheep — in some part through a very sweet adopt-a-sheep program — and to continue making cheese by buying small quantities of fresh and frozen sheep milk. They also bring woolen goods, sausage, and the occasional heritage Buckeye chicken or egg to market. Last year, Shepherd’s Way started a CSA that drops shares of Friesago, Shepherd’s Hope, and Big Woods Blue, among other cheeses, at various locations around the Cities.
Yet today their situation remains precarious. They have not been able to produce enough cheese on the limited supply of sheep’s milk available to return to national distribution and, in fact, the farm is in foreclosure.
When we talked with him, Steven Read said he couldn’t call himself a cheese maker — that’s Jodi’s job. He’s a shepherd: “One of my favorite things about what we do is what I am. It’s very meaningful; being a shepherd can be defined as avocation as well as a vocation. I love it when people ask, “What do you do?” and I say, “I’m a shepherd.” We all harbor imagery of what a shepherd is and what a shepherd does, so it’s a meaningful definition.”
Here Read explains what makes sheep’s milk special — and hard to find! — how CSAs work for the producer and, most especially, how Shepherd’s Way Farms will ultimately survive with a little help from its community.
Sheep milk and cheese are kind of rare – why is that? What’s different about the milk?
Sheep milk in general is higher in calcium than cow or goat milk and it has a higher proportion of HDL to LDL, so it has a better cholesterol profile. It’s also higher in fat-soluble vitamins – like the vitamin Bs – and it’s a short chain fatty acid milk, which means that it’s easier to digest; people who have a lactose intolerance should be able to digest sheep milk. It’s also naturally homogenized, so you can freeze it and it doesn’t lose taste or texture; it doesn’t separate.
So, are there differences in flavor?
Sheep milk is definitely going to be richer. It’s higher in protein and fat and it’s higher in tonal solids, so it’s a very thick milk. It’s a sweeter milk. Often times, for example, the yogurt you might make out of a sheep milk will be sweeter than if it’s made out of cows’ milk, so it won’t necessarily require the same amount of sweetening.
That doesn’t sound unpleasant. Why is it that there isn’t as much sheep milk cheese around? And why don’t you see bottled sheep’s milk?
You don’t get very much milk from a sheep. Even a goat produces significantly more milk, for example, than a sheep would, which is one of the reasons sheep milk products tend to be very expensive.
Once and a while people ask me why we don’t sell fluid milk. The simple answer is that there’s not a lot of it, but the other reason is that it’s a rich milk; you could use it as cream in your coffee, but it wouldn’t be a drinking milk — and it would be incredibly expensive.
Does the sheep milk have the same seasonality that cow milk does in terms of flavor?
There’s some seasonality that takes place, and that’s both a symptom of what type of feed they’re eating and the season. In many management systems, the animals dry off at the end of the summer, and milk at the end of lactation is going to be very different than the beginning in terms of composition. Often times, towards the end of the season, the animal is giving less milk and it’s typically higher in fat, higher in solids, so it requires a different touch from the cheese making process.
Do you have sheep gestating all year round or seasonally?
The great thing about Friesian sheep, which is the type that we milk, is that they have a high ability to lamb out of season. We have not milked here since November of 2005. However, historically we would start lambing – not by design, but it always seemed to work out this way — Christmas Day. Our last ewe would arrive around Thanksgiving, so we’d typically have a month where we weren’t milking.
And that makes it easier. It helps balance out the use of your facilities, your labor — and for us, because we are processing on the farm, we want that year-round milk.
How many sheep do you have on the farm today?
We have about 250 sheep on the farm right now. Many of those are survivors of the fire, so it’s a fairly old flock. We lost all of our barns in the fire — and that impacted our ability to milk – so we have not aggressively bred to expand our flock. We couldn’t milk them and we continue to be vulnerable, so the idea of more mouths to feed was not attractive. We’ve kind of maintained a somewhat static flock, but when we do start to rebuild, we can quickly – sheep flocks can grow quickly if you want them to!
In 2004, flock-wide we had 25 percent singles, 25 percent triplets, 25 percent twins, and 25 percent quadruplets – so you get a lot of babies from sheep!
In terms of the recovery, what are your plans? Do you want to rebuild the farm to its pre-fire herd? And when will you milk again?
We definitely want to milk again. Our previous size would be a good size for us to reestablish. Although, the farm is currently in foreclosure, it’s our intention to redeem the farm and continue our rebuilding. It is more challenging because foreclosure has become the new” F” word in our economy; it conjures up such fear and negative images.
In this case, foreclosure doesn’t mean the end — the farm can still be redeemed and continue on. Shepherd’s Way will survive and our goal remains to rebuild and thrive right here. We have reached out to our community, and frankly we would prefer that it is our community that actually helps us rebuild. We have done that over the years, in a variety of ways, but right now we’ve set up a legal framework, where certain individuals can help resolve the farm real estate issues and that’s a facet of slow money.
This is a process that has to be spread by word of mouth and it takes time to pursue that strategy. The tool we’re using is called Farm Haven — it’s been written about – and even though we can’t advertise, we do have individuals who are willing to host events and bring in community members for us to talk to about it. The wave of interest in investing in things that matter, the enthusiasm and support we’ve seen so far have led us to be optimistic that we will redeem the mortgage by asking our community to become our bankers.
Define “slow money.”
A pat answer is “bringing money back down to earth” –- that’s Woody Tasch, author of Slow Money. We were doing it before term existed. What it means is trying to bring a different way of thinking about money to the marketplace.
For example, when we started looking for alternative investments — not philanthropy, but actually sourcing capital, we discovered that small food enterprises, such as a family farm, meat market, neighborhood café, all of those businesses, particularly if involved in alternative types of production, are doing things that banks don’t find comfortable. There are social financing networks out there, but most of those groups want to invest in enterprises that have at least $5 million dollars in sales –- bigger ventures than most typical small food enterprises. At the other end, there are social investment networks that do micro-financing, but these are typically less than $10,000 range. So there’s a hole in the infrastructure. Woody Tasch recognized that hole: that we’re losing sight of food, soil fertility and agriculture, a core economy, and a path to sustainability within our culture and economy.
So Tasch started this movement called “slow money” and wrote a book about it. It’s a very different idea of what your investments can do, there’s a non-monetary benefit to participating in the stewardship of land, strengthening your community. The returns may be lower, but you have the non-monetary return of a greater good.
It’s a little like the people who buy shares in the CSA. You put your money up before you get your product. The farmers markets would also be an example: You accept that you are paying more but it’s worth it because you know what you are getting – and they offer the non-monetary benefit for you, society, the earth, and the land.
What is a CSA? And what does a “share” mean?
The definition of a CSA is becoming broader. In a traditional model, you divvy what you can produce in a year; if you don’t produce everybody is shorted and that’s the risk. Increasingly, producers are producing excess that they can sell to the coop, farmers market, etc., so there could still be shortages, but there is a little bit more flexibility. You are seeing CSAs adding options, too — you know, a jam, potato, or egg share.
So what is the benefit of CSA for a producer – why did Shepherd’s Way start one?
I can’t imagine having only CSA members – but I think it would be really fun! If you had the type of operation where all of your produce could go to your CSA because not only is that prepayment – which means having the funds available to manage your operation – but also the scalability of things is so different if you can go directly to your customers.
But, we couldn’t survive without distributors or retailers, so we all have to find our balance.
Tell me about that scalability.
Anytime you can sell directly to your customer, you’re going to be able to direct more of the return to the farmer. If farmer X needs to sell a 100 pounds of carrots to make $200 wholesale, but he can sell 100 pounds of carrots directly to his customers for $400, he only needs half as many carrots to get the same amount of money. So, all the sudden, instead of having to have two acres of carrots, he only needs one acre. For a livestock – whether it be cattle, goats, or sheep – you do that same math. So you have this whole ripple of effect, including land, animals, resources, expenditure, labor – all the things that that go with your scale.
In terms of the CSA, how many different cheeses are you making at any time?
Five or six cheeses – and those will all rotate in and out of the CSA. Jodi does make, every other month, something special just for the CSA, so it might be a cheese truffle…
Oh, those were so good!
Weren’t those good? That’s what we had hoped to be able to do. We’ve had requests for a CSA for a long time, and this last year our thinking evolved again to, “What else can we be doing for local foods?” The idea of connecting directly with our community and customers was really attractive. We’ve been at the Mill City Farmers Market for four years and I’ve just really enjoyed that interaction and the CSA has really taken that to another level.
How many shares have you sold?
We’re right around 65 right now.
Are you also selling cheese outside the CSA and farmers markets?
Right now, Big Woods Blue is the only one we have enough of to distribute. All of the other cheeses are really only available through the CSA or at the farmers market. And there are certain cheeses that we’ve had to reserve for just the CSA because we don’t even have enough for the market.
This week we had six wheels of Friesago Grano, five and half years old, just a fantastic cheese. We had so many new CSA shares that had been gifted for the holidays, we thought, “Well, let’s do something special again this month – let’s crack those open.” So that’s the last Friesago Grano in existence; it will not be seen again for years and years, and the only people that are getting it are the cheese CSA share members. It’s a very strong cheese, so not everyone is going to like it! But it is fantastic grating cheese, very earthy, very strong and what you would expect it to be and so I was excited and I hope people were excited to get it.
Speaking of eggs, you’ve got a flock of chickens that you raise for meat and eggs…
We started a heritage Buckeye chicken project four years ago. So, we’ve been selling buckeye broilers and then also buckeye eggs for the last three or four years.
Where can people find them? Do they need to come out to the farm?
The eggs are available at the farmers market, and they’re usually gone by 8:05. We don’t have a lot of them and they’re very popular, so we are trying to grow that flock. The Buckeye chicken itself is an extremely endangered chicken, again because it’s not industrialized. A part of the Shepherd’s Way mission is the preservation of livestock breeds. The Buckeye chicken was at one time a very popular chicken, but it did not fit well in a confined industrial model, so it fell by the wayside as has almost every chicken breed in the world. I was just staggered to learn this summer that, I want to say, over 90 percent of chicken is the same breed. For as smart as we are, we just do such stupid things.
My son Elia had always been interested in pigs, so a few years ago he started a heritage, large, black pig project. Again, trying to not only promote local, sustainable food but also promote the preservation of breeds. When I speak to school-age children, I’ll often talk about diversity – the first thing that comes up is the Amazon, and it’s a nice connection to make for them, that we can also be concerned about the diversity on the farm, and the importance of maintaining a diverse gene pool, particularly when so many of our foodstuffs are dominated by monogenetics. We really want to make sure that some of these things survive, just in case…
So our first three little piglets are about six to eight weeks old now.
There’s obviously a huge appreciation for locally produced foods right now – are trends driving this or is it a real change in mindset?
I think it will absolutely grow. There is a whole range of contributing factors. I think that the industrialization of our food system created a lot of the concern and that, because of that concern, we have so much more information available to us now that people are able to react to it in ways that, even 15 years ago they would not have been able to, and we’re able to send not only that information but also our products out in ways we weren’t able to do.
So that that has created an awareness of what local food can do. I’m not very old – well I’m 45, but I like to think of myself as not very old — in my short lifetime, I went from growing up in community that had its own meat market, barber shop, grocery – those amenities that really were local foods 40 years ago. Within a generation that entire economy disappeared, I don’t know if we can return to that economy, but what we are trying to do is to reintroduce the idea that sustainably produced local foods can offer the same type of choices that we’ve lost historically as our food systems industrialized.
Fortunately, all of a sudden we are talking about local foods in a much different way, and the availability of local foods from a consumer awareness point of view has grown exponentially. Look around, right now there’s 42 farmers markets in the cities. Ten years ago how many were there?