Conservation Showcase - Green Dirt Farm
Green Dirt Farm: Sheep Help Protect the Land
Military families know the drill. At the end of three or four years in one location, it's time to pack up the house and move on to another destination. Each move brings new opportunities, people to meet and places to discover. For Sarah Hoffmann, founder of Green Dirt Farm, one constant in her life remained the same no matter the location: there was always a family farm to attend to.
"We never lived in on-base housing," Hoffmann said. "My Dad always found a farm to rent or buy just off the base and everyone in the family pitched in on chores."
Hoffmann developed a strong work ethic, good family values, a solid business sense and an understanding of the land while growing up in various locations around the country.
"Growing up on a farm you can't help but learn things like sales, production and economics," Hoffmann said. "You learn naturally from doing all these things on a daily basis. I wanted my children to have this same understanding and appreciation for the farm that I was taught at an early age."
Challenges faced Hoffmann as she and her husband, Dr. John Spertus, tried to spread themselves between their primary occupation in the medical field and their secondary job of farming.
She and John, a cardiologist, moved from Washington to the Kansas City area in 1996 because they were looking for a location that had an academic medical center with farms nearby.
"Weston provided us with the best of both worlds," Hoffmann said. "It never occurred to me that I couldn't do it all."
After three years in Weston working as an academic internist and farmer, Hoffmann gave up her medical career to focus solely on the farm. She apprenticed for two years with an organic farmer after purchasing 25 acres of land that had previously been used to grow tobacco. She had hopes of cultivating the land for vegetables.
"I went to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to research the soils that were on our property," Hoffmann said. "That's when I learned that the soil never should have been planted to crops. We couldn't turn the soil every year, so we looked at other available options."
After making the decision to raise sheep, Hoffmann set out to determine what to do with her herd on such a small farm.
"With my farming background and love of microbiology, owning and operating a sheep dairy seemed like the perfect fit," Hoffmann said.
On the suggestion of NRCS District Conservationist Terry Breyfogle, Hoffmann attended a management intensive grazing workshop in Linneus and was introduced to area resource conservationist Curt Walker.
"With the assistance of NRCS, I received cost share to seed three acres of our property into native prairie grass," Hoffmann said. "I wouldn't have had the first idea how or what to plant without the assistance of the NRCS staff. After that, I applied for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to install watering systems and portable fences on the property."
"Since beginning work with Sarah in 2001, NRCS has provided substantial technical assistance for Green Dirt Farm," Breyfogle said. "We've helped to design nutrient management plans as well as a unique waste management system. In addition, we've helped Sarah convert her highly erodible land to pasture land, something that has aided tremendously in the conservation of the soil."
In her first year of operation, 2002, Hoffmann's dairy consisted of 20 sheep on 15 acres of pastureland. Milking sheep on a small scale, Hoffmann experimented with recipes and learned how to make cheese with small volumes of milk. It wasn't until 2004 that Green Dirt Farm began selling its 100 percent grass-fed lamb at local farmers' markets. After progressing enough to build a dairy parlor and creamery in 2008, the staff began making cheese on a commercial level. The farm has since expanded to 111 acres with around 180 ewes.
"We milk about 82 sheep," Hoffmann said. "Our herd doesn't consist solely of dairy-quality sheep."
Because sheep are seasonal milkers, only lactating 210-220 days a year, Hoffmann and her four assistants, make as much cheese as possible during this busy time, storing certain varieties that will hold well for the holiday season in aging rooms.
"In November and December we have no fresh milk," Hoffmann said. "That means we also have no fresh cheese to sell during those months. But, our biggest sales come from October through December so we stockpile the aged hard cheeses."
Green Dirt Farm, named for the "green" efforts used to keep both the land and sheep fertile and healthy, is best known for its Bossa cheese. A consistent American Cheese Society winner, Bossa has an edible rind which has been washed with brine while it ages.
"The chemistry and microbiology side of me really enjoys the cheese making," Hoffmann said. "Each year I tweak our cheese recipes to find the solution that works best at certain times of the milking season."
Hoffmann's husband and three children are all actively involved in the operation of Green Dirt Farm.
"My husband helps with the cheese process and also heads out to the farmer's markets alongside our children," Hoffmann said. "The kids have learned a lot about farming, but they've learned a lot about how a business runs, which I think has provided a tremendous hands-on learning experience for them."
Hoffmann and business partner Jacque Smith have marketed Green Dirt Farm cheese throughout the nation and have expanded their operation to include dinners housed in what was the old milking barn.
"We scheduled 15 farm table dinners this year and they sold out in a matter of hours," Hoffmann said. "The dinners are an extremely popular event where local chefs come in and use our grass-fed lamb, sheep's milk cheese and local produce to prepare four-course meals paired with local wines. We've been very pleased with the response these dinners have received. In addition, it's help introduce a new group of people to Green Dirt Farm."
Surveying the pastureland surrounding the milking barn, Hoffmann is pleased with the progress her fledgling operation has made since beginning in 2002.
"I built Green Dirt Farm from the ground up," Hoffmann said. "I've enjoyed working on the farm and have thoroughly enjoyed being able to pass along some of the life lessons that I learned on my parents farm along to my children."
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