Shepherd’s Way

10 10 2008

Edited by Emily Larson

Jodi at Shepherd's Way Farm - by Peter HunnerI didn’t have to travel far to find where the cheeses Luigi used were made. Less then 12 miles away is Shepherd’s Way Farms, owned and run by Jodi and Steven Read. After I arrived, Jodi and Steven laid out an array of fresh cheeses for me to sample. From the first bite of the Friesago and the Big Woods Blue, I was in love. Until my visit to Shepherd’s Way Farms I didn’t know what good cheese tasted like, having lived off of Kraft Singles and Happy Cow wedges for too long.

Shepherd’s Way is an artisan farmstead sheep milk cheese farm. When they are in full production, Shepherd’s Way Farms gets all the milk for their cheeses from the sheep they raise on their own farm. The process to make their cheeses uses minimal mechanization, holding true to the hand-made, small batch tradition of cheese making. When you taste one of their perfectly crafted cheeses, you will understand the important difference made by the artisan farmstead cheese process. It is no surprise that Steven and Jodi have won multiple awards for their cheeses.

Located in Nerstrand, Minnesota, this 43-acre farm is home to 250 sheep, 20 hens, one rooster, two gilts and multiple cats, along with the Read Family. Jodi and Steven started farming in East Union, Minnesota, in 1994 with 40 sheep and a dairy ram. At first they just produced and sold milk though the Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Cooperative, but when they ended up with more milk than they could sell, they decided to make a batch of cheese. After a successful first batch, which they sold to Surdyks, they made more batches until they switched to full time cheese production and moved to their present farm in Nerstrand.

On January 24th, 2005, a horrible act of arson devastated the farm. More than 400 sheep were killed and all of the animal housing, more than $250,000 worth of facilities, burned down. Shepherd’s Way Farms was practically put out of business. This tragic event hurt the Read family financially, but also personally because of their relationships with the sheep that died. Because they feed their sheep by hand from birth, the Reads develop an intimate relationship with their animals and know them as individuals. After the fire, there was a national response of donations and volunteers determined to help the farm recover. Four years later, Shepherd’s Way continues to build itself back up while producing world-class cheeses.

Shepherd's Way Cheese - by Peter HunnerCheese making is an art form. It takes as much love as skill to produce a prize-winning cheese. From the animals to the aging process, everything is a factor, and no one knows this better than Steven and Jodi. It all starts at the milking stations. Up to 48 sheep are milked at a time for less than 10 minutes each, twice a day. At full production, 500 sheep are milked, which takes four hours including clean up. The sheep milk is pumped to a spotless milk room where it is kept cool and stored in large tanks. From here it is pasteurized. Jodi mentioned, “What’s important to me is the quality of milk and the cheese making, pasteurized or not it can make good cheese.” Though raw milk yields better tasting cheese, Shepherds Way Farm’s pasteurization processes and cheese making produce fantastic cheeses. After the 17-second, 170-degree pasteurization process, the milk is placed into vats where selected bacteria and cultures are added to the milk to create the specific types of cheeses. The acidity is measured to ensure quality and readiness, then an enzyme is added to set the curd. The curd is cut with special cheese knives specific to the type of cheese. After hooping and draining in stainless steel forms, the cheeses are prepared for aging. Shepherd’s Way uses three types of aging processes, which depend on the type of cheese. They range from simply waxing and aging to washing the curd with brine every day. The aging time varies for each type of cheese. Most is sold by the wheel, wholesale or in smaller portions at the Mill City Farmer’s Market.

Shepherd’s Way’s cheese-making process is not only artisan but also sustainable. They do not use pesticides or herbicides, and the farm is pasture based, meaning the animals feed in the pasture and they in turn fertilize the earth; there is no need for synthetic manure or fertilizers. Their process goes from land to grass to sheep to milk to cheese, so a pasture-based farm is very important and yields a clean, natural product.

Shepherd’s Way Farms is very active in the surrounding community. Jodi and Steven give farm tours to schools, senior groups, and the A Sheep Shepherd's Way Farm - by Peter HunnerYMCA to educate about cheese making, agriculture and sustainability. They donate cheese to local organizations and events as well as work with students from the nearby of St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges. The farm also produces numerous other products that are sold locally and nationally. They breed and raise endangered heritage buckeye breed chickens. The broilers and eggs are sold at the Mill City Market in October while some of the buckeyes will be bred to help support endangered heritage breeds. The sheep’s wool goes towards making products such as comforters, pillows, and mattresses. This next year they will also be raising heritage breed pigs for meat.

Thanks to operations like Shepherd’s Way Farms we can still enjoy the comfort of naturally produced cheeses and food. Local gems like this farm keep communities united by offering quality homemade products that are unique to the community.

To view these photos and more see the Shepherd’s Way slideshow.

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