Green Dirt Farm
Trading On The Senses Of Agriculture
When Sarah Hoffmann and Jacqueline Smith began producing award-winning sheep milk cheeses they were almost overwhelmed by customer requests to visit their Missouri farm.
Tired of constantly saying “no,” they turned the inconvenience of consumer interest in visiting their Green Dirt Farm operation into a thriving agri-tourism business that hosts 1,500 people a year for dinners, taste-testing and tours.
Smith, who operates the farm, and cheesemaker Hoffmann began sheep farming early in 2000 with a flock of about 20 ewes—mostly Dorset, Katahdin and Gulf Coast breeds.
They learned a lot from this flock.
“Neither one of us came from farming backgrounds,” Smith says. “Sarah grew up on hobby farms and my family had horses. But that was the extent of our knowledge on farming. We had to learn a tremendous amount about how to operate a farm.”
A Start In Sheep Dairying
The farm was very raw when they obtained their 125 acres of land—barns had to be constructed, along with fences and water systems.
The property, outside Weston, about 40 miles northwest of Kansas City, previously was row cropped and the partners had to plant grasses and fix erosion areas.
“We had to learn how to grease tractors, milk sheep, and make cheese,” Smith says. “We had to figure out our marketing, logos, social-media and business plans.
Hoffmann came up with the name, Green Dirt Farm, to communicate their commitment to sustainable grass farming.
They now operate their flock on 250 acres, using 125 acres owned by neighbors who do not farm but allow the women to use their grass in exchange for taking care of the property.
With their first flock, the partners learned about milking ewes and using their milk to make cheeses, experimenting with very small batches of about two gallons in their kitchens.
Today, they run about 300 dairy ewes and some 100 mixed-breed meat sheep, used for breeding 100 percent grass-fed lamb that’s sold direct-to-customer.
Their business plan calls for demand-driven increases in milk production each year.
“We have plans to increase our milking flock by about 50 ewes each year up to about 500 milking ewes,” Smith says.
Their flock mainly is made up of standard American dairy breeds, which are a cross of Lacaune and East Friesian dairy sheep.
The flock includes Katahdin and Gulf Coast native breeds, the latter reported to milk heavily for an “unimproved” race of sheep.
“I think the research is still being conducted with Katahdin dairy crosses,” Smith says. “I’m not sure anyone has officially researched how Gulf Coast dairy crosses milk.
“However, from personal experience, the Gulf Coasts do contribute to healthier lambs and ewes especially in regards to parasite burdens,” she says. “Pure breed Gulf Coasts are too jumpy on the milking stand, but I have some really nice crosses that milk heavy and are very hardy.”
The flock is grass raised, and as a result milk production is slightly less than conventional farms that feed total mixed rations. The ewes averaged 2.25 lbs. of milk a day in 2013 for 263 days in a season that begins in early January and ends in late October.
They use a 12-stall DeLaval milking equipment system set up with room to expand as the business grows.
The road to the farm started for Smith when she attended the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She became interested in the country’s food supply and how food was being produced. Still, becoming a farmer wasn’t something she envisioned as a career.
“No one in my extended family had experience in farming,” she says. “It wasn’t something that I thought people go into as a career choice.”
But as she learned more about how food is created in the U.S., she wanted to contribute to producing healthy food options and began exploring the possibilities.
“Around the same time, I met my business partner,” Smith says.
Hoffmann, a physician, had purchased land in Weston, Missouri and was thinking about putting the land into production. Her husband would keep with his medical career, but he and their children enjoy staying involved with her on the farm.
The women investigated many options, including vegetable farming and cow dairy production, but quickly
realized that because the farm sits on steep rolling hills with deep valleys it is best kept in permanent pastures.
“Sheep were a perfect choice for us,” Smith says. “There was, and still is, high demand for sheep’s milk products.”
Plus, when sheep are grazed in a managed grazing system, they build soil fertility without contributing to soil erosion on the farm’s steep rolling hills with very soft fine soil.
“We looked at the economics of cow dairy versus sheep dairy and decided it was good business for us to go into the sheep dairy industry,” Smith says.
Sheep dairy still is very new to the U.S. and the partners figured as consumers became more aware of how tasty sheep’s milk products are, there would be plenty of room in the market for growth.
“From the very beginning we planned our business around making sheep’s milk cheeses,” Smith says.
The cheeses produced include Woolly Rind and Dirt Lover, both bloomy rind cheeses; Prairie Tomme, a washed rind alpine style tome; fresh cheeses; Bossa, a washed rind cheese; and Feta, as well as yogurt.
“Our bloomy rind cheeses or our fresh are the most popular,” Smith says. “I think they have the largest customer appeal. Customers who might be hesitant in trying sheep’s milk cheese for the first time will easily recognize a bloomy rind. The format makes it easier for them to make the leap from cow’s milk to sheep’s milk.”
The women produce their own labels with the help of a local graphic designer and have them professionally printed. All the dairy products are packaged on the farm. Their latest initiative is Only Ewe LLC, a creamery that partners with farmers, retailers and consumers to develop a strong grass-fed, humanely raised livestock and dairy industry in the U.S.
Only Ewe is initially marketing four different flavored yogurts, sold in six-ounce cartons, as well as kefir, which will be sold in quart-sized bottles. The two women are in the research and development stage to expand the Only Ewe product line.
The new company will join with area sheep dairies that share a commitment to pasture-based, humane animal husbandry practices to provide additional milk.
Smith and Hoffman see an almost infinite market, with the opportunity to capture a share of the imports that now account for 98% of U.S. sheep milk cheese and dairy sales—about 70 million pounds of product.
When they first began, the women focused on the local and regional markets. But as they grew, they began to expand their market through distribution.
“We didn’t plan on attracting our local community to the farm,” Smith says. “However, over time, our customers asked to visit the farm. We decided to concentrate our agri-toursim around what our farm produces—cheese, yogurt and lamb.”
They designed a program of farm-table dinners and cheese-tasting appreciation events, so they could highlight not only their own products, but also other cheese artisans.
Organic & Humane Affiliations
Green Dirt Farm is run to organic standards, but is not certified for three main reasons.
“There are a lot of ethical challenges with the organic standards for small dairy farms,” Smith says. “One of these issues is the prohibition on using antibiotics as a treatment.
“The FDA monitors dairies for antibiotic residues in the milk and is very strict about its testing procedures. However, under the U.S. organic standards, use of all antibiotics, even therapeutic antibiotics, are prohibited. If any animal is treated with an antibiotic the animal is prohibited from producing organic milk for human consumption for the rest of its life.”
Another issue is that anthelmintic drugs are limited to the three that kill dung beetles and earth worms vital to soil fertility, while limiting the treatment to only three increases resistance to parasites on the farm.
Finally, Smith says, “It’s simply cost prohibitive for small-scale dairies to become organic. The cost of organic feed and hay would price our already high product even higher.”
The farm does not use synthetic chemicals or hormones and only uses antibiotics when necessary to treat sick animals. The women never use sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics or other growth promoters. Pesticides and herbicides are off limits.
Smith says a management-intensive grazing system is used that sees animals moved to new pastures every 24 hours. This means the sheep receive the best nutrition possible, while soil fertility constantly is improved and soil erosion is virtually eliminated.
“We believe that a foundation of healthy soil is the key to growing nutritious grass, happy sheep, and satisfied customers,” she says.
The two women also have found their customers are more interested in the farmstead, grass-fed nature of the farm as well as the animal welfare practices rather than organic certification.
Along those lines, Green Dirt Farm is an Animal Welfare Approved farm.
AWA audits and certifies family farms that are raising their animals humanely, outdoors on pasture or range. Farmers who earn the AWA seal benefit from having a third-party verification of their high-welfare practices.
AWA farms allow animals to behave naturally and socialize freely.
“On our farm, you will see animals living comfortably, with plenty of room to romp outside, eating the foods that are best for their bodies,” Smith says.
Doing Business; Facing Problems
The farm’s products are sold at local farmers markets, restaurants, local retailer and specialty grocery outlets including Whole Foods Market, Dean & Deluca, Brookside Market and Better Cheddar. Their cheeses and yogurts also are distributed through regional and national supply chains. The partners opened an online store just before last Christmas in time for the gift-giving season.
Late fall and early winter are the calmest times of year on the farm and the partners work on repairing fence and equipment. The two women also continue to age cheese, plan for the new season and work on marketing.
The sheep are outdoors year-round. In the depths of winter, when pasture grasses and legumes are in short supply, lambs are fed alfalfa hay.
The farm’s main predator threat comes from coyotes.
“Our farm is on one of the bluffs of the Missouri River,” Smith says. “We have beautiful rolling hill landscapes with deep gullies that make great dens for coyotes.”
Managing a daily flock rotation inside electro netting helps keep coyotes at bay.
“We also use livestock guard dogs with our flock,” Smith says. “Typically, I keep two or three flocks rotating around our farm. Each flock has at least two LGDs in with them at all times.”
Each year, the farm’s cheeses are entered in the American Cheese Society’s competition and most have received awards. The farm picked up five awards at the 2013 American Cheese Society competition that attracted more than 1,800 entries. First place winners include Dirt Lover and Fresh Plain; while silver medals went to Fresh Rosemary and Just Plain Yogurt, and the Fresh Garlic & Peppercorn cheese took a third place.
Dirt Lover, Woolly Rind, Fresh Plain, Fresh Nettle and Fresh Rosemary were also award winners at the event in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Smith says the major mistake they made in starting their farm business was assuming it would be easier than it was.
“Our original goal was to stay local,” she says. “However, the capital expense in starting a dairy is so large that you have to grow in order to comply with FDA standards.
“Also, simply producing a quality product is expensive. Although there is a lot of demand for sheep’s milk products in the U.S., we are in competition with European sheep’s milk products that are subsidized. The market is still very niche, so a good marketing plan is extremely important.”
Their biggest problem at startup was cash flow, and it was important to know the market they were aiming for. Also, getting healthy dairy ewes with no diseases was vital.
They operate a closed flock.
“Each year, I will purchase a ram from a colleague to breed in new genetics,” Smith says. “But it’s hard to find genetics that don’t have many diseases and have grazing abilities.”
Looking Back; Looking Ahead
Smith says it would have been smart to start out with an advertising campaign.
“We produce high-quality cheeses and yogurts and we keep reminding ourselves each day that we will produce only the highest quality,” she says. “I think this is what keeps our customers coming back.”
The farm visits grew with customer demand, and the women now host about 1,500 people a year.
“We had a lot of requests early on,” Smith says. “At the time, it was just Sarah and I and we didn’t have any extra time to give tours.
“However, we got tired of telling people ‘no’ all the time, so we designed a series of cheese-tasting events and monthly farm table dinners that centered on what we do—grow food. We work with area chefs to host the farm-table dinners. At the cheese appreciation events, we focus on small-scale American artisan cheese makers like ourselves.”
The farm-table dinners for up to 30 people are held in a covered barn on Sundays during the warmer months. The $170 tickets for the four-course dinners sell out within hours, and sometimes in minutes. The farm also hosts private dinners for a minimum of 20 guests.
Biosecurity is a must.
“We do not allow our visitors to walk on any areas where our flocks will walk,” Smith says. “If the visitors are here to look at our pastures or to purchase animals etc., they must wear plastic boot coverings.”
Monthly cheese-tasting events are designed around a specific theme, where guests learn about and sample cheeses from regional artisans that are paired with selected beers, wines or champagnes.
The first farm-table dinner caught the attention of the food editor of the Kansas City Star. He wrote an article about the event and from that point on, the dinners have been a huge success, Smith says.
The result has been job creation.
“We have positions ranging from farm-hands, dairy operators, delivery drivers, farmer’s market staff, cheese kitchen staff, office staff and events staff,” Smith says. “We offer both part-time and full-time employment. During the season we will employ up to 13 full-time employees.”