June 9th, 2006
Name: Sweet Grass Dairy
Owners: Jessica and Jeremy Little
Location: Thomasville, Georgia
Animals: approximately 150 goats (Saanen, La Mancha, Alpine), they also buy cow milk from Green Hill Dairy which is owned by Jessica’s parents
Cheeses/Products: Thomasville Tomme, Georgia Gouda, Myrtlewood, Green Hill, Lumiere, Fresh Chevre, Holly Springs, Pecan Chevre.
They have a lovely retail shop on the farm too!
More info: www.sweetgrassdairy.com
As unfortunate is it was, the fate of our visit to Sweet Grass Dairy was determined by a seemingly unimportant stop en route to the farm. A small bowl of food we ate in Athens, Georgia literally brought us to our knees about 6 hours later. When we got to the farm we introduced ourselves, apologized in advance for our antisocial behavior and asked for a bed and a bathroom. Eighteen hours later I sat down to have my first conversation with Jessica and Jeremy; Michael had lasted about two hours post-arrival before he succumbed to the illness so he had gotten to know them a bit. I have to say that the Littles were the absolute best you could hope for in such a situation. Not a shred of annoyance from them about our delicate composition, just lots of apple juice, sparkling water, crackers and sympathy.
Many people associate Sweet Grass cheeses with Desiree Wehner, Jessica’s mother, who started the dairy. Desiree and her husband Al are known throughout the grass-based, rotational grazing cow dairy world as an example to be followed; not to mention that they are known throughout southern Georgia as right good people. Al and Desiree were conventional dairy farmers who became disenchanted with dairying and decided to try something different. Similarly to Helen and Rick Feete, the Wehners turned to the New Zealand model and created Green Hill, a 340 acre rotational grazing facility currently milking approximately 500 cows. In the late 90’s a variety of circumstances lead the Wehners to move into Thomasville onto 140 acres. Desiree saw an opening to have the handful of goats she had always wanted and the development of Sweet Grass Dairy began.
Fast forward to 2003 when their son-in-law, Jeremy, joined them at Sweet Grass to assist with the expansion of the cheesemaking facility. Jessica came down from Atlanta a few months later and both she and Jeremy gradually became involved in the dairy. At a certain point, Al and Desiree decided that they needed to focus their attention on Green Hill and the discussion of Jessica and Jeremy taking over Sweet Grass Dairy began. It took over a year for the couple to decide to buy the dairy and get everything organized for the purchase. (As Mateo Kehler- Jasper Hill Farm- once told me, “You want a good laugh? Walk into any bank and tell them you want a loan to start or buy a small dairy farm.”)
Jeremy apprenticed with Desiree on the cheesemaking side and gradually took control of the production while Jessica focused on sales, marketing and accounting. It is refreshing to hear the two of them talk about the ups and downs of their experience with the dairy in such a candid way. I’m not talking about whining or complaining - as that is almost never impressive; what I mean is that there is a level of honesty that comes out as a result of their humility. They are open about the inherent contradiction they feel about their ownership of the dairy; they probably would not have done it had they truly understood what they were getting into and yet they are in total agreement that they would do it again if given the option.
On the afternoon of our second day there, Michael and I finally felt like we could stand long enough to get the full tour of the dairy. It was about five in the afternoon so milking was in full swing. The goats are all waiting for their turn in the parlor and were surprisingly nonplussed about the 95 degree heat.
While they make cheese daily at Sweet Grass with their goat milk, they also get beautiful Jersey cow milk from Green Hill. We walked through the cheesemaking room and all of the aging rooms. One of their most valued employees was finishing up flipping the Green Hills- small disks of Jersey milk with delicate bloomy rinds. Jeremy has worked a lot on the Green Hills and it has paid off- they are absolutely insane! The expansion that Jeremy helped build was for the two rooms that were added to provide the proper environments for soft-ripened cheeses. Two other cheeses are ripened in these rooms - the heart-shaped Lumiere and the Pecan Chevre, both are made with goats milk from Sweet Grass.
We proceeded on to see the bulk fresh chevre, made earlier that day and draining in tubs, and the Goudas which were still in their forms in the cool, old press that stands in the middle of the production room. There are four “caves” teeming with aged cheeses made from cow and goat milk. Jeremy explained that, like all the cheesemakers we have visited so far, they cannot keep up with the demand for their cheese and that it is difficult to age some cheeses much beyond the required 60 days because people are waiting for them.
I didn’t realize until we looked into each of these rooms that my perception of Sweet Grass Dairy was that they were quite small. Maybe because in my retail days I had focused on their small cheeses or maybe because I had not seem them sold in many places in NYC. Regardless of my reasoning, I was wrong. Sweet Grass is in a stage that reminds me of what it felt like when I was 7, too old to be a cute little kid and not old enough to be a big kid either. Jessica and Jeremy confirmed that they are in the midst of an awkward phase where they are too big to be small and too small to be big. This might not sound like much to an outsider but it is something that plagues many American cheesemakers. Producers feel the risk of having their customers decide that they have become a “factory” if the growth of the cheese production seems too large. It is one of many contradictions of the consumer: wanting something rare and unusual but wanting a consistent supply of it.
The next morning, before we sat them down for their interview, Jeremy took us out to Green Hill so we could see the farm that we had heard so much about. It really is amazing and lucky for you all Michael was brave enough to climb up onto one of grain towers (the cows are fed grain during milking) to snap some photos that give you a sense of the layout of the farm.