September 3rd, 2006
Name: Shepherd’s Way Farms
Owners: Steven and Jodi Read
Location: Nerstrand, MN
Animals: Total number of adult ewes, approximately 450, 100 ewe lambs. All are East-Friesian crosses.
Cheeses/Products: Friesago, Queso Fresco de Oveja, Big Woods Blue. Several other cheeses are available on a limited basis: Hidden Falls, Harmand, and traditional Ricotta.
More info: www.shepherdswayfarms.com
I think that most of us have had an experience in life where we think we are set… we think we are finished with the struggling and on our way to something until we find out, that like some kind of cruel joke, the counter has been set back to mile one. And not only are we back at the beginning but usually we are suffering too- not only from our setback but also disbelief and frustration at our own bad luck. Imagine that you managed to get yourself through the multitude of hoops on the route to farmstead cheesemaking. You pooled enough resources together to get an adequate piece of land, developed a product that sells, settled on a distribution plan, and grew your herd from the ground up, and held a strong place in the market for a solid decade only to be thwarted by an incident that was worse than most you could have imagined. This is what happened to Jodi and Steven at Shepherd’s Way Farm. An arsonist set fire to the barn that housed all of their ewes and new lambs. Overnight they went from an operation milking approximately 550 with 200 new lambs to a family dealing with the loss of 325 ewes and 200 lambs. This event was incredibly upsetting on an emotional level and a tremendous setback in their business. We wanted to visit Shepherd’s Way because they have become known as “the farm that lost their herd in a fire”, and given that the fire happened a year and a half ago and they are still in business, we felt compelled to learn and share who they are now.
Jodi and Steven are acutely aware of their reputation. When we started our farm tour, Steven set out an aerial photo of the farm pre-fire and said, “let’s just get the fire business out of the way.” He is completely comfortable talking through the events because he has gone over it so many times and I’m slightly uncomfortable for the exact same reason (I’m another person asking them to tell the story). It is the elephant in the room, something that could be problematic for them when talking about their business and instead, because Jodi and Steven are so up front about it, you really get a feel for how these this family and business has begun to accept this as part of who they are. They have been at their current location for about 5 years- before we dive into the farm tour let me give you a bit of background on them and their path to cheesemaking.
Both Jodi and Steven are Minnesota natives and, as is the case with many of our cherished American cheesemakers, neither of them grew up farming. Steven had worked in a number of jobs involving agriculture and education, eventually concluding that teaching in a conventional system would not be fulfilling for him. He gained an incredible amount of knowledge about agriculture through travel, his graduate degree and a job that he held as a nutritional consultant for a feed company. Both before and after developing his own farmstead operation, Steven travelled around the country visiting small farms and cheesemaking operations. The Reads had been looking for some opportunity that would shift their lifestyle more towards having time with their family; Steven read and article about the feasibility of sheep dairying and thought it might be the right solution for them. Jodi was maybe slightly less certain that this was the perfect opportunity at the time and so she gave Steven the green light to proceed with a few conditions: he had to find a place to keep the sheep that didn’t cost him anything, he needed to figure out how to buy the sheep (given that, at the time, the Reads didn’t have money beyond what they needed to cover their living expenses), and there was a loose agreement that he would buy a “reasonable” amount- you know- “some” sheep. Steven found a friend to help him finance the purchase of the sheep, bartered for a place to keep them and got a “great deal” on 40 sheep within a couple weeks- this should give you a sense of the level of determination the Reads have when they set their sites on something. They wrote down their goal at that time- it is simple and direct and yet broad enough to house an expanding dream- “We believe that there is a way to live that combines hard work, creativity, respect for the land and animals, and a focus on family and friends. We believe the small family farm still has a place in our society. Everything we do, everything we make, is in pursuit of this goal.” That statement is the basis for their farm’s mission statement today.
In 1995 they began milking and by 1996 they were doing it full time and selling their milk via the Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Coop- Jodi contributed some of her time to the development of the coop. 1998 rolls around and the contract guaranteeing their milk seems uncertain by early spring so they begin to consider other options. Keep in mind that with their growing herd and new farming lifestyle, Jodi is still a full-time employee at the University as an accomplished technical writer. So Steven takes a soap making class and although they produced a batch of beautiful soap with their milk, they realized just how much soap they would have to make to use the milk of their entire herd. Thus they began an informal, regional market survey about cheese.
Shepherd’s Way produced their first batch of cheese in August of 1998. They didn’t have their own facility so they had to rent a space - meaning that they made large batches less frequently to make it more economical. I think about Jodi, who has established herself as a capable and talented cheesemaker over the last decade, working with that first vat of 4500 pounds of milk. Tremendous pressure indeed. Granted she was not alone for those initial batches- she was assisting- but at some point she did take over as the lead cheesemaker and has been doing that since then. The original plan was to allow the cheese to wait for five months before tasting and selling but no one except Steven was actually patient enough to wait so they tasted at 2 months, and with positive feedback from local retailers, they sold out quickly. In the background, their herd was growing and Jodi and Steven were looking seriously for a farm where they can have their herd and cheesemaking operation together.
After a three year long farm search, Jodi put an ad in a small paper and got a phone call from a Alan Hope who thought she had placed an ad for a piece of farming equipment. When she explained that her ad was for a farm, he said that he had one of those for sale too. Jodi doesn’t strike me as the impulsive type at all and yet when she drove out and saw this farm for the first time she had a strong feeling that this was the one. Based on the drive out to their farm I can understand the appeal- rolling hills dotted with trees and the occasional home. It took them at least a year to pool the resources to close on the farm which they did in 2001. As Steven walked us through the milking parlor he designed (it is the only sheep parlor I’ve seen yet where the milker is in a pit and the sheep are at ground level), it is obvious that he set it up to flow with a considerable volume of sheep. He explained that their current plan will have them expand to up to 1400 ewes. The parlor, milk, cheesemaking, maturing and packing rooms are all housed in the original barn- a beautiful old building with some additions off one side. Creating a new space for housing the sheep and the nursery allowed them to do two things that were important to them: they got to allot spaces big enough to grow into (not to mention work in comfortably), and to create a long corridor with windows into each part of the operation: a built-in educational walking tour. As we walked through the cheesemaking room, Jodi explained that they are working to add onto the cheesemaking portion of their facility so that she can produce their famous Big Woods Blue on site as they do with all of their other cheeses. Until they have that addition, Jodi will continue to make and age the blue cheese in another facility because of concerns about blue mold contamination of their other non-blue products.
The ewes are moved to different pastures daily, this chore is often handled by their eldest son- with some assistance from the younger boys. We walked out to see the ewes in the pasture and Jodi explained that building the herd back up is a slower process (even more so than usual) because the health of many of them was compromised as a result of the fire. They are all Friesian crosses- some with black faces, some with white- every once in a while you’ll see a spotted ewe in the mix. Shepherd’s Way is making cheese a couple times a week at this point as a lot of their time has been focused on figuring out what happens next. When you walk around the farm and out onto pasture with the ewes it is abundantly clear that the fire was not just a setback to a business, the farm and the herd are also an integral part of their family’s life. Listening to Jodi and Steven talk about their future plans you can see that they are planning something beyond a business, they are planning to shift their community’s relationship to the landscape- how they think about food, the land, and sustainability. As a result of the fire, Jodi and Steven have gone through an extensive evaluation of what they want to spend their lives doing. Remember that they could have decided to step out of the farmstead cheese business and instead they’ve elected not only to continue but to expand making more cheese and creating opportunities for education on their farm. Through this process they have renewed their commitment to the values that lead them to this lifestyle and livelihood in the beginning.
After our day at Shepherd’s Way what stuck with me most about their experience is that it could have played out so many other ways, many of them less desirable. Spending just a day with Jodi, Steven and their boys, it was so apparent that something incredible and fruitful will come from their loss solely because that is the kind of people they are. They have been generous enough to allow others to participate with them through their entire process- from the acquisition of the first herd in the early 90’s, to dealing with the loss of their herd, and now rebuilding. I want to encourage all of you to watch for them in the future. We hope to see the slow and steady resurgence of their product on the shelves in 2007.