In this episode, you’ll learn…
- Why Sarah Hoffman ditched a medical career to start Green Dirt Farm.
- Why Sarah started a sheep’s milk dairy and creamery.
- How Green Dirt Farm uses farm dinners and cheese tastings to strengthen customer relationships (and produce income!).
- Which sheep breeds work best for dairy and cheesemaking.
- How Green Dirt Farm produces its most popular cheese, step-by-step.
- Sarah’s thoughts on milking frequency, freezing sheep’s milk and forage quality.
- And much more wisdom from Sarah…
- Don’t forget to check out the Small Farm Nation Academy whenever you’re ready to GET GROWING!
Hey, there thanks for joining me. In this episode I’m joined by Sarah Hoffman of Green Dirt Farm in Missouri, where she raises sheep on pasture, milks them and turns their milk into award-winning cheese.
In this episode we discuss Sarah’s journey to farm life and how her desire to raise children in that setting led her and her husband to make some courageous career choices.
Sarah ditched a medical career to become a first-time farmer. She’s learned a lot about selecting farmland and maximizing its potential, learning to safely make excellent cheese, marketing and cultivating customer relationships, animal husbandry and forage management.
A big part of Green Dirt Farm’s success today is agritourism. Sarah shares her approach to farm dinners, cheese appreciation events and other tactics that deepen the relationship between her farm and her community.
Whether you’re interested in farming yourself or wanting a deeper knowledge of where your food comes from, you’ll really enjoy this interview with Sarah.
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Tim Young: [00:00:00] Small farm nation is sponsored by farmersweb.com, software for your farm. farmersweb.com helps farms inform buyers of available product handle orders simplify customer interactions and reduce the administrative load so check them out at farmersweb.com.
Tim Young: [00:00:23] Hey is Tim Young of small farm nation dot com. Today you’ll hear Sarah Hoffman’s fascinating life journey that led to the creation of Missouri’s green dirt farm. Hey there. Thanks for joining me again this week.
Tim Young: [00:00:43] In this episode I’m joined by Sara Hoffman of green dirt farm in Missouri where she raises sheep on pasture milks them and turns their milk into award winning cheese. Now we discuss Sarah’s journey to farm life and how her desire to raise children in that setting led her and her husband to make some courageous career choices. Sarah ditched a medical career to become a first time farmer. She’s learned a lot about selecting farmland and maximizing its potential learning to safely make excellent cheese. She’s learned about marketing and cultivating customer relationships animal husbandry forge management and everything that goes with building a successful farm business. Now a big part of green dirt farm success today is agro tourism. Sarah shares her approach to farm dinners cheese appreciation events and other tactics that deepen the relationship between her farm and her community. So whether you’re interested in farming yourself or are wanting a deeper knowledge of where your food comes from you’re going to really enjoy this interview with Sarah. So let’s just get right to it.
Tim Young: [00:01:57] Joining me today is Sara Hoffman from Green dirt farm in western Missouri where they make pasture based sheep’s milk cheeses and blended milk cheeses. So Sarah welcome to small farm nation.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:02:08] Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be here.
Tim Young: [00:02:10] Yeah and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your story in depth and I know a lot of people are I’d like to start with. Let’s start with your father because I get the sense that your father may have been a bit of a rebel since. My understanding is he was a naval officer who moved every couple of years but refused to live on base. So what was growing up like for you.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:02:32] Yeah that’s true. I wouldn’t I don’t think he would characterize it as refusing to live on base. He just chose a different option. But you know he he well he I think loved being in the Navy. He wanted his kids to have a different experience.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:02:51] I think I think that that was he. He hasn’t actually articulated this to me and I’m going to ask him about it at Christmas. But we always almost always lived on a small farm like a homestead farm where we raised our own food and had livestock animals and particularly when my siblings and I had four four brothers and sisters when we were in our teenage years I think that his strategy was to keep us from doing the typical teenage things he’d cut because we had other attractions and distractions on the farm and things keeping us busy and I really admired that I loved growing up like that I loved being outdoors and that I loved having the hard work and raising the animals and the long walks in the woods and the experience of you know the natural cycles of birth and death and rebirth and you know that happens every spring on a farm. I grew up absolutely loving that and always thought that I wanted that for my own kids.
Tim Young: [00:04:06] Now what livestock were you around when you were growing up.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:04:11] Well we raised beef cattle and did for H. And we had horses of course and we had dogs. My parents were dog avid dog trainers and we had sheep and which were my favorite livestock animal. On one of the farms because we moved so much and moved every two years I actually we we rented a number of different kinds of farms so in two places that we lived one in Pennsylvania and one in. In Maryland we actually had commercial farms where my dad you know in all his free time raised in when I was a teenager in Maryland he was raising sweet corn and tomatoes and selling them to restaurants and this was in the 70s before the small farm movement and so he was kind of ahead of the curve on that.
Tim Young: [00:05:07] Where’d you go to college and what was your path from there?
Sarah Hoffman: [00:05:10] I went to college at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and actually I my undergraduate degree was in chemistry but little did I know that I was going to use that knowledge that I gained through that undergraduate degree to make cheese. I had no idea that I might become a cheese maker at the time I was an undergraduate school.
Tim Young: [00:05:31] Well I mean you have a big advantage there because my first year making cheese I think I think I’ve fed at least two thousand pounds of organic blue cheese to my awesome ball pick. I’m sure you didn’t go through that.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:05:42] Well you know I made a lot of bad cheese too. But I will say that having the background in chemistry was a big step up you know was a big big help.
Tim Young: [00:05:57] I read somewhere that you spent some time in the Peace Corps in Liberia.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:06:00] Yeah yeah I. After I finished undergraduate school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do I didn’t I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of going into bench research and chemistry and I I did want to travel so I joined the Peace Corps and I went to West Africa and it was a really formative experience for me.
Tim Young: [00:06:24] Well so you’re taking a winding path. So you grew up in a farming world and you major in chemistry at Bucknell you head over to Liberia and then West Africa and the Peace Corps and I assume you don’t go from there to Missouri. So what happened next.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:06:41] So I returned from from West Africa to New Jersey in the middle of winter which is where my parents were living at the time and decided I really didn’t want to be in the northeast so I just picked everything up and moved to Southern California and worked in a research lab in Southern California mostly for the sun still not knowing quite what I wanted to do. But then from there I worked I did research for three years and then I went to medical school. And my my thought at that time was that I was I was fascinated by tropical disease and infectious diseases and I wanted to study that. So I went to medical school in San Francisco and then I did my internal medicine residency in Seattle. And once I finished there I was on the faculty at the University of Washington thinking about doing a fellowship in infectious diseases. But at the same time I was starting to have my family that biological clock was ticking I was thirty three by then. So somewhere along the way you picked up a husband I picked up a husband a wonderful man who who had stuck with me through it through thick and thin and through all of my crazy kooky ideas. And we we actually we were in medical school together and we went to residency together and he continues on in medicine as a researcher in cardiology.
Tim Young: [00:08:21] So let me guess if you’re in Seattle then it sounds like the two of you you have you have kids you both have careers but now you’re starting to remember back to your dad wanted to have the kids on the farm and a formula to keep him out of trouble or something like that.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:08:35] Exactly. And you said my kids want to keep them out of trouble but work towards the farm land in Seattle. So so you know at that time my husband needed to move for his research career. He needed to find a place that was going to support his research. And I had this great job and I’m. But I was also having children and I’m I’m you know I’m thinking about well I have this wonderful academic medicine career ahead of me. I’m excited about that but I’m having these children and I want to be present in their lives and I want them to have this experience that I had growing up because it’s a real counterpoint to to to some of the problems that I was experiencing with you or that I was you know sensing we’re going to be problems for them growing up in a in a kind of suburban electronic world. So I really wanted to get them out outdoors and I wanted to find a way to do that. So when my husband and I moved I said Okay here’s the deal we’re going to we’re going to find a place that has affordable farmland within 30 miles of an academic medical center. And that’s what we did. And that’s how we actually happened to land in Kansas City.
Tim Young: [00:10:00] So what were your criteria that you were looking for? Now you said within 30 miles were you looking for farmland at the time or were you just looking to live rural. I mean you could homestead to for example you don’t have to have a commercial farm so what were you looking for here.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:10:13] Well we were basically looking for a farm that appealed to us. I would say that that was within close proximity to an academic medical center which is hard to find really because most academic medical centers are in urban cores so finding a you know easily computable farm is not that easy. So that was one of our main criteria. And at the same time I’m thinking you know this is really hard to try to have to split your life between a career and raising your kids. And I’m I’m recognizing the real challenges with that and realizing that if I wanted to have the kind of academic career that I wanted I really wouldn’t be all that involved in raising my kids and that that was distressing to me and I I took quite a lot. A lot of time to figure out whether I was going to jump off that career track and into something that would allow me to be more present for my kids and I eventually did do that and but realized that I needed to to have have a business that really gave me a sense of you know of doing something worthwhile. And and so that’s what really inspired me to start Ranger firm.
Tim Young: [00:11:43] I don’t know I’m assuming it’s 18 years or whatever after. I don’t know when you made this decision around 2000 or so maybe but yes many years ago. But I’m wondering what that decision is like and I don’t want to get sexist and all this kind of stuff but generally it seems to be that women face this decision more than men. I mean obviously a husband could decide to that I’m going to stay home and raise my kids and the wife could work out a fire. Or it could go that way. But but but let’s be honest most the time is this way and I haven’t faced this decision the way you have. So you know we’re talking about it. You know in the after picture you know you’ve got a successful farm but what was that decision like for you then? I want to I want to raise my kids and be with them but at the same time I’ve earned this career opportunity and now I’ve got to give it up I mean that must have been incredibly difficult decision.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:12:35] Oh it it was it was it was. I mean it’s been a long time. And I’m. And in retrospect in hindsight I’m very glad I did it. But at the time it was it was heart wrenching. It was. It was an extremely difficult decision and I was really torn. And it took it took me a long time and in a lot of tears frankly and a lot of you know. Conversations with my husband about it and with other people other supportive people. It really took quite a long time to heal.
Tim Young: [00:13:13] How old were your children at that time.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:13:16] They were 5 7 5 and newborn.
Tim Young: [00:13:20] Ok. So about a manageable age. So you know some not too many you know deep friendships that time that they lost by. By making that move. But what happened to you in terms of social structure? I mean you had friends that were doing things like what you were doing and you were in Seattle and then you’re moving to the country in Missouri. I mean were you starting over too or did you retain those friendships.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:13:43] Well we retained some of those friendships and still have them and I’d love them to this day. But you know distance makes it hard to to have the really deep relationship that you do when you’re close by and you can see each other on a regular basis. But you know we came here and and and being a Navy Brad I was used to the idea of forming new new attachments and new friendships in a in a new location. And so you know in my husband’s I mean when we when we first moved here actually I worked at in medicine for a couple of years. And so I formed new friendships that way before I actually jumped off the medicine track. And and so those friendships are still with us and we found new friends. It takes a while. But but but it’s manageable. It’s it happens.
Tim Young: [00:14:40] What’s another thing that we share in common. You know the fact that you move so many times you know created in you an ability to be able to adapt and to make friendships and heck I went to 12 schools in 12 years so it’s like just put me anywhere you know you can you can you can get along and be OK. So when you found your farm how much land did you find?
Sarah Hoffman: [00:15:01] We first got twenty five acres and originally I was going to do organic vegetables because the piece of property that we purchased had a bout a five acre piece of land that was under cultivation as a tobacco base actually. And so I was going to convert it.
Tim Young: [00:15:22] So you’re gonna make organic cigarettes.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:15:24] Yeah. The I was going to do organic vegetables on that piece of property right. You apprenticed with an organic vegetable farmer here in Kansas City and then went on planning to do that. But as it turned out I hadn’t done quite enough homework on the property that we bought I had just assumed that the land was good for cultivation because it was under cultivation. At the time we bought it it was in soybeans. But when when we actually purchased the property I and I did the went to the extension office and got the soil maps and discovered that it was very highly approachable land that probably was you know if I was following the organic ethic I wouldn’t have had it under cultivation. And so at that point I realized I actually need to rethink this.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:16:20] And it turned out that another piece of property north of us just moved on the same road north of us came up for sale was eighty nine acres also under conventional cultivation but shouldn’t have been because it was so highly eroded all and I was all at the same time I was thinking well what can we do on this small farm that is an economically sustainable small business and not you know not just a hobby farm. And in in thinking through that I hit on the idea of cheese making and dairying and I became really excited because I realized Wow this really brings all of my loves together my my interest and fascination with infectious diseases. And my my background in chemistry all of those things are chemistry and microbiology are the important scientific pillars of cheese making.
Tim Young: [00:17:27] So you know along with eating food I like to eat the cheese you know this you brought up an interesting point there I’m curious about because you you you you said you asked yourself how can I create an economically viable business. And I’m wondering why you felt the need to do that. You know a lot of people are they’re torn between they start a farm and it’s largely a hobby farm it’s to satisfy their desire. For example if you were raised children in that kind of environment you can do that by having a hobby farm. It doesn’t have an economically viable farm. And you know if John was working and if you didn’t have the financial pressure for that then you would need to. Or did you had the financial pressure that you needed an economically viable farm or were you trying to satisfy an entrepreneurial spirit that you had.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:18:16] No we didn’t. Yes you’re definitely right I was trying to satisfy an entrepreneurial spirit and I was also trying to create something that was purposeful and meaningful to me. Me personally and I felt very committed to the organic farming movement and and the principles of sustainability and agriculture and I I I wanted to create an economically viable farm because I wanted to be able to bring that idea to my community and have it be something that that wouldn’t persist. And and you know if you if you if it’s not economically viable it doesn’t last very long and it doesn’t make an impression and people are not going to pay attention.
Tim Young: [00:19:17] I totally agree it reminds me a lot of when I hear Jasper Hill it kind of started the same way when they were trying to figure out a way to make an impact in their community up there you know to bring to bring back farming and some permanent permanence to farming farming and taking out of the commodity world and you’ve definitely done that as well. But why did you decide sheep. I mean that there’s a lot of challenges with sheep particularly in the US.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:19:42] But you know what was it about sheep that you saw as an opportunity that you could do something with well I like to always joke that I had a very frivolous reason for doing that which is that the sheep are my favorite livestock animal and I really enjoy them. But there was also a more practical side to that which is that in 2001 I in my interest in looking at well what if I’m going to do cheese. This is you know I had hit on that idea if I’m going to add value to a dairy product to make cheese. What kind of cheese should I make. And I I became interested in I learned about a dairy sheep in the United States through attending a dairy sheep conference in Wisconsin and learned that we actually import 95 percent of the sheep dairy products that we consume here in the United States. So it seemed to me that there was a real market niche. And I I felt like that that would be a good differentiator for us. You know if we were going to jump into it we needed to have something that that made us stand out and that would make people you know pay attention and remember us. And I that’s that’s really the reason that I chose sheep in it. It was a good decision in some ways and a terrible decision.
Tim Young: [00:21:12] We’ll get to that. Well you mentioned that you started because you know you like sheep and one of the things that I’ve experienced personally and I’ve talked to countless people in the farming world who’ve done the same thing is that we all many of us start our farms with it’s all about what we want what what’s right for us what I like to do I want this pig or I want this chicken I’m going around this without doing any market research at all. Is it fair to say that you went down that same path yes?
Sarah Hoffman: [00:21:43] Yes I totally went down that path when I first started it was it was really it was all about me it was what do I want. What am I interested in. What do I want for my children and my family. And it was and I really I in some ways regret that I started that way that it was you know I think that that was probably not the best foot to start on although there’s no point in I can’t go backwards but if I were to give anyone advice about that. About starting a farm it’s that you have to recognize that the most important person is your customer and you have to create and listen. You have to listen to your customers and you have to create what your customer wants. Right. And I think that that would have helped us in many ways really focus better and be more successful at the beginning of starting the firm.
Tim Young: [00:22:50] Yeah. You know I frequently say to people that you know I make up this number but. But you get the point. I frequently say that successful small farming is 80 percent marketing and 20 percent growing or producing and I hate saying that because we’re all drawn to farm life for the reasons that you’ve articulated. I mean it’s our love of the land is that permanence is that connection with the people when their food. It’s for raising families. But if we can’t get customers in and get them to be loyal and support us particularly since let’s be honest everything we produce out here is much more expensive and much less convenient to buy. So it really takes a lot of marketing to get people to support us and I hate to say it but it’s true.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:23:32] Yeah. That is so true.
Tim Young: [00:23:35] So when you when you went down the sheep path I mean so what I mean most people who are milking sheep or using the East Friesians is that what you decided to do or what are you doing for your sheep breed.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:23:45] Yes. Well actually I I started I made a lot of mistakes starting. I started off with some dairy sheep but dairy sheep in the United States are quite expensive and I thought I had this brilliant idea that I was going to crossbreed them with a hardier breed that was parasite resistant. Well actually no. I used the Gulf Coast sheep. Oh well using Katahdins because and I’ll tell you why that was just nuts. That was the silliest idea ever. It was because dairy sheep have been selected for thousands of years to produce milk and the other breeds of sheep don’t really produce milk in a quantity that could be commercially viable. And not only that dairy sheep have been selected for thousands of years to be calm and let down their milk in an environment where they have lots of people around them and noise and lots of distractions whereas you know a sheep that has not been bred with those kinds of characteristics or it doesn’t come from a background with a bit of having to be handled and touching their udder and allowing humans to get close to them. Those sheep are almost impossible to milk and they produce very small quantities milk. So it was just that was just a silly crazy idea. So I learned that pretty quickly because Gulf Coast sheep are actually almost nearly feral breed of sheep and they they they’re actually absolutely crazy in the milk. We we have really pretty much eliminated that genetic line from our flock and we’re raising primarily east region and come cross the lichen is the French dairy breed.
Tim Young: [00:25:40] Now you know my understanding I’ve haven’t raised East Friesian myself we raised a lot of Katahdin because we were on the meat side. But my understanding is that these freezers can be quite prolific breeders. I mean having triplets or quads frequently is that true or is that what you find.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:25:54] Oh yes yes I will. We are our flock average is about one point seventy five. So we have lots and lots of twins. Generally the first year lambers have singles which is a good thing and then we have usually have a set of quads one set of quads every year and you know 10 or so triplets maybe those those we actually don’t want because you generally have to take a lamb and bottle feed it away to lambs away from any ewe that’s producing quads and one of the Lambs away from a you that’s producing triplets because she does she can’t raise them all or won’t raise them all.
Tim Young: [00:26:35] How many years do you have right now.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:26:38] We have about 150 now.
Tim Young: [00:26:41] I know I enjoy Woody Allen movies but I read somewhere that you said sheep are the Woody Allen’s of the livestock world what in the world did you mean by that.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:26:51] Well they’re cheaper incredibly funny but in their behaviors they just do some hilarious things there they’re so fun to watch and they’re very group oriented. So they you know they flock together very well and have a lot of social hierarchy issues but they’re also incredibly neurotic they’re very they’re hyper vigilant. You know there’s a predator around every corner. And I think that that drives a lot of their comical behavior to itself like Woody Allen for sure.
Tim Young: [00:27:24] So what are you doing in terms of milking frequency once a day twice a day.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:27:28] Well this year for economic reasons we’ve milked once a day because we actually don’t quite have enough used to make to be able to break even on the farm side and that’s really important to us. But typically we would we would knock twice a day. Right now we’re we’re nurturing a relationship with an Amish community north of us that’s also producing sheep milk for us. And they they promise to hold the same farm practices that we have that is there. They’re grass based and they’re animal welfare approved which is animal welfare approved is a certification that we get from an organization called a greener world. And it’s kind of like our organic certification but I think it’s much better than organic because it it validates our humane practices as well as our environmental practices.
Tim Young: [00:29:47] So I’ve got a couple questions there based on what you just said I I’m going to have this wrong I believe. But you said something about you went to once a day milking because the the the numbers or the profitability on the farm side wasn’t right. So before we dig into that I mean how do you do you measure. What are your enterprises. How do you measure profitability. You said the farm side as compared to what the cheese side.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:30:08] Yes. So we have we actually have kind of four departments to our to our business now four sections where we are measuring how each one is performing. We have a farm shop. We call it the great that the creamery at Green dirt farm or the Green Dirt farm creamery. And that’s a small shop in the little historic town near our farm. And at that shop we sell sandwiches and cheese of course. And we partnered with a local winery where we have their tasting room in the shop with us. And we also feature many other small batch artisan food makers and farmers. So in the in the shop. And then so. So that’s one part of the business. And then the the cheese making and the cheese selling is another kind of department that where we measure our profitability and we sell to our shop of course but we also sell direct down to Kansas City and we sell on the web and we sell to distributors through our cheese making business and then we have the farm side of the business.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:31:24] And then we have an event side where we during the season offer farm to table dinners and cheese tasting events out at our farm as well as private events like birthdays and anniversaries and that kind of thing.
Tim Young: [00:31:39] So tell me what you meant just a second ago then about the farm side I asked you about your milking frequency and you said you normally would do twice a day but you went there once a day because something wasn’t right on the farm side what wasn’t right.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:31:50] Right. So what had happened is in 2015 I was taking a look at our numbers are milk production numbers and realized that in our in our rush to try to build our flock numbers and get to a production of production volume of milk and cheese that would sustain the business we had neglected to really improve the milk production of our flock. And in fact our milk production numbers were going down because we were keeping everything and we weren’t making good selection decisions. So what I did at that time was reduce our flock down to our 70 best milking ewes with the idea that what we really needed to do as a business taking a look at our numbers to get to get us to that economic point of economic sustainability is we needed to improve that that overall production of each individual you because one of the big problems for dairy sheep producers in the United States is that we have very low milk volume production numbers and that that makes the cost of the milk really high relative to cows milk and goat’s milk. Absolutely. And so what what we decided to do in 2015 was keep our best our 70 best milking ewes and we formed this partnership with the Amish community north of us and we began to purchase milk from them. And we also began to purchase some cows milk because we could see that that would help us with our our economic goals.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:33:40] And so the the the the goal at that time was to rebuild our flock with better genetics in the hopes of getting to that point of of much improved production because we could we could double at least double our production of each individual you if we were using European genetics in the flock and we’d actually been hampered for many years by by USDA regulations that would not allow us to bring new genetics into the United States. But fortunately the dairy sheep Association of North America which I’m on the board of was we could see that we were gonna be able to to clear some of the USDA regulatory hurdles and bring in some semen from France which is the the in France has the most to look on breed as the most improved dairy sheep breed in the world. And so knowing that that was on the horizon and that we were gonna be able to take advantage of of semen that the dairy sheep association was was spearheading bringing into the United States. We we had the idea that we were going to rebuild our flock with better genetics and improve the productivity of each individual you and hopefully get to a place where the farm side of the business was paying for itself.
Tim Young: [00:35:15] So when did you bring over that semen and was that the 2016 or when.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:35:18] Well it actually took a while the first the first importation was last year. You were able to utilize some of the semen last year and then then we had another importation this year which we’re gonna use next year.
Tim Young: [00:35:33] Ok. So that means that you’re A/I’ing your sheep. Do you normally A/I your sheep or do you do natural breeding.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:35:38] No we we do natural breeding because that’s a requirement of the animal welfare approved certification but fortunately the organization a greener world is there. They’re very supportive and we wrote to them and petitioned them and said you know this is actually a an issue that is critical for the entire sheep dairy industry in the United States where we’re very very small and if it are survival as a as an industry hinges on us being able to perform some A.I.. So they gave me a limited derogation to do a few do some A.I. on some of our sheep on our best use. So ordinarily we always do natural breeding.
Tim Young: [00:36:33] So yeah you’re right about the cost of the milk for sure I mean I’ve made a number of sheep milk cheeses but unlike you I had to buy mine and I might buy my milk and sheep milk costs four times when I was buying it it cost four times what cows milk would cost if you were buying cows milk and honey and as you know there’s no way you’re going to charge four times as much four times as much for the cheese.
Tim Young: [00:36:54] Now of course you do get a better yield with sheep’s milk cheese but certainly not four times so it’s is that there’s a lot of challenges and we’ll get to that in a minute. You know on marketing the shoes milk cheese and your in your milking parlor Are you pipeline system are you doing the cans.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:37:09] No we have a we have a low line milking parlor. OK. So you have wage hours so that you can calculate then how much milk you’re getting from your use. With meters we can measure it daily but we actually do a systematized method of measuring once a month so that we can submit that data to to the dairy sheep Association which is keeping genetic records now so that we have. So that we have an industry wide dairy sheep improvement program.
Tim Young: [00:37:43] Ok. So you know cows of course you know we tend to milk for nine or 10 months and then give a couple months off. Many people that are milking sheep will do it for five five and a half months. How long do you make your sheep for each lactation.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:37:57] Well it’s typical for us on our. Our on our farm to get about one hundred and fifty days. We generally measure it in days but we’re. But dairy sheep on average should we should be able to get a 180 to 200 days. And so we’re that’s another aspect of some of their genetic improvement that we’re working on to be able to to one of the things that’s a real challenge for the the deep sheep dairy industry and the sheep milk cheese making industry. Is that the volume of milk goes way down in the fall. Right. When artisan cheese sales go up. So we have not we have no milk for our soft a short shelf life. Cheeses in the fall. And so many of us are working on trying to extend that milking season and get our sheep to breed out of season as well.
Tim Young: [00:38:52] Well let me ask you about that. That was a question I had because you’re you’re exactly right of course that demand for cheese is peaks there in the holidays and most people I don’t know about you but most people will lamb working on the early spring and you know they’ll go for five months or so and then of course they’ve cut no fresh milk coming out but sheep’s milk I’m like cows milk freezes very well and then I’ve made all the sheep’s milk uses I’ve made them with frozen milk. Are you able to freeze the milk and then produce those kind of cheeses for your customers in the holiday season.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:39:21] Yes we we have frozen milk with mixed success. As long we find as long as we use the milk within four months of freezing it it’s still good quality. And so that’s a challenge though. What happens after about four months is that the milk begins to get an oxidized flavour taint. And you know it’s really it’s it’s subtle at first and then it gets worse and worse. And if you know what you’re looking for you know that that’s that that that the cheese was made with frozen milk and we really try to avoid frozen milk unless it’s fresh frozen as much as possible because of that problem.
Tim Young: [00:40:04] So you know of course with cows I mean there are people that will calf year round people that will calf in the spring. People the calf in the fall. Now I know the natural cycle of sheep is to is to lamb in the spring but are you thinking about going year round or maybe doing a fall lambing and a spring lambing is that possible.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:40:23] I think it’s possible. It’s we’re identifying the use in our flock that will breed out of season. There are also some strategies that you can use for RAM fertility in the spring because some of the research suggests that a lot of the lack of fertility or the lack of breeding that happens later in the year like the dairy sheep won’t typically won’t settle don’t get pregnant after if they’re bred after about April and from January through March the fertility goes down and down and down. But if you do some strategies with your rams in terms of putting them making sure that they have 16 hours of light followed by three months of 16 hours of light followed by three months of eight hours of light then you have a much greater chance of having more fertility. So we’ve been using our flock. So supporting our Amish farmers and using our flock primarily for finding that core group of ewes that we can breed out of season in the hopes of having a group that we will we will milk for six months in the early part of the year and a group that we will milk for six months in the fall apart. That’s our current strategy but it’s a it’s risky. And if you don’t have the resources or the or a backup plan it’s very risky.
Tim Young: [00:41:53] Well you’ve got two choices Sarah you just convinced the sheep to start lambing in the fall which they don’t want to do or if you can’t do that just convince the Americans to celebrate Christmas in July we can move the holiday season.
Tim Young: [00:42:06] Let’s talk about cheese making because we’ve been talking about this you know like Oh yeah. Everybody knows how to make cheese or whatever but I’m assuming there was a point in time where like myself you had no idea how to make cheese. So how did you start making cheese. I mean who who taught you to make cheese or how did you learn this. Yeah.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:42:22] So I you know I was very intrigued by cheese making. When I first hit on the idea and began to take cheese making workshops my first cheese making workshop was it was a fantastic one. It was. The the University of Wisconsin’s basic cheesemakers licensing course and it was a seven day course. So I just you know I went up to Wisconsin for four a week to take that course.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:42:52] It was a fantastic course because it covered all the basics and it was actually designed by the state of Wisconsin because they have a requirement that their cheesemakers be licensed and in order for their cheesemakers to to be able to get a license quickly they had this course through the University of Wisconsin. So that was that was a fantastic first starter course and played all the scientific foundations for cheese making.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:43:20] And then I found lots of workshops around the country artisanal cheese workshops one through the University of Vermont and one through the University of Oregon. These were generally weekend courses where I could just go for a couple of days and and the fantastic thing about that was that I connected with other cheese makers who were just learning and I also connected with with people who were experts and cheese making who I could call upon when I had had trouble at home with my cheese making.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:43:51] And then the other thing that I think that I did that I think was extremely helpful to me was I attended the American Cheese Society annual conference and the American Cheese Society is an organization that supports traditional cheese making arts and at the conference which is a three day conference with with a cheese competition as part of that as part of the conference. There are many many seminars on cheese making lots to learn lots of networking and connecting with other cheese makers and experts in the cheese business. And that is a fantastic way to get help and find mentors for your cheese making and you know they have a business strategist in sessions so you can take your cheese to them and sit down with them and present your cheese to them and they’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. And some ideas for how to fix it and that’s actually one of the reasons why we we submitted and we continue to submit our cheeses to the competition there every year because each piece of cheese has two judges and those judges write a page of notes on on each cheese and that feedback is really invaluable for improving a cheese and cheese recipe.
Tim Young: [00:45:11] Right. You get technical and you get aesthetic feedback and then we did the same thing. The American Cheese Society is a great organization for anybody interested in cheese. Now I only I made only aged cheeses I mean my youngest cheese might have been for months but generally they cheeses for eight to twelve months. So I chose to make raw milk cheeses on my farm. In your case you’re making many fresh cheeses as well or young cheese. So you chose pasteurization Did you ever think about the raw milk route or did you not.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:45:42] You know so I have a real I’m I I have a real appreciation of raw milk cheeses and love love many of them but the the risk involved for a business is pretty high unless you’re making a hard cheese and the hard cheeses are much safer to make with raw milk and particularly if you’re buying your milk from someone else. If you’re if you’re producing your own milk and you’re doing the necessary testing to make sure that you don’t have any of the pathogens in the milk then I think raw milk cheese making can be very very safe. But the risks for us as a business were too high for us to go down that path as much as I would have liked to personally. It just wasn’t going to work with our soft cheeses because as you mentioned there we’re required by law to pasteurized the cases that have lunch on a short shelf like less than 60 days.
Tim Young: [00:46:45] Yeah. And then frankly in my opinion I don’t see how you can run..it’s really difficult to run a thriving profitable sheep’s milk cheese business with aged cheeses. I mean the yields you get with aged cheeses are so much lower than what you get with fresh high most raw cheeses if you get the varying cost of having to carry in them and tend to them for six eight nine months or whatever. I just don’t see how you can do it.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:47:16] Yeah. I don’t see how I I’ve crunched the numbers on that too we do makes a couple of hard cheeses and they’re at a very very high price point because they have to be because of the low yield as you mentioned and the long carrying time and and now the extra costs of of proving that you’re you’re producing a fresh as a safe cheese product. All of those things I think make it difficult to produce raw milk cheese and produce sheeps milk cheeses as well and hard sheep milk cheese.
Tim Young: [00:47:51] So I know you’re a grass based dairy as we were. I’d like to talk to you about forage quality or types of forage for a second because you know one of the things that happened when we started our farm in Georgia in the spring we get all these wild onions in the pasture and I was in a county where they used to be a lot of dairies. So most of them had gone away but there is always hated the spring because they get that wild onion taste in their milk. For me in the spring when that happened I made a lot of blue cheese because onions blue cheese garlic and blue cheese go so well together. I’m wondering if you find yourself do you face any of those kind of opportunities or decisions where you you change what you’re choosing to make his cheese based on the forage quality.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:48:34] You know we tend to do we tend to change what we’re making at any given time of the year based on the characteristics of the milk but not the flavor so much. And while one of the things that I love about our cheeses and love about the fact that we’re grass based is that we get so much more flavor and variety of flavors and and the cheese the flavors and the cheese change with the seasons for the reasons that you just indicated as the you know the forage is change constantly throughout the year. And so we know that about 60 percent of the flavor in milk comes from what the animals are eating. And so you know that has a huge impact on the on the flavor of the cheeses. But. What we really work on is having a very very diverse grass soared and pastures but we haven’t fine tuned that to the point where we can say Oh we’re we’re gonna get this flavor or that flavor or and I’m making a cheese with that in mind. But we do we do see a lot of a lot of textural changes because of the characteristics of the chemical makeup of the milk at different times of the year. And we do tweak our recipes and tweak which which cheeses we’re making based on that and we we try to make our hard cheeses primarily when the animals are full on into summer grass because that’s when they taste the best and get the most the most flavor and aroma compounds building up in them as they age.
Tim Young: [00:50:16] All right. In terms of your forager I mean are you only dealing with perennial past here. Are you overseeing annuals or do you have any annual only plots or what are you doing.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:50:27] Well we have a week we work towards diversity in our in our grasses in fact we’ve we have been steadily working towards getting more and more prairie grasses returning to our pastures are because our farm was under conventional cultivation we had control over what we planted there at the base was actually from grasses. What I ended up planting is my base. And I actually regret that I wouldn’t I would do it differently now. But we’ve also have a couple of areas a couple of paddocks that are primarily a and a fight friendly FSU and orchard grass and Timothy. But we have brown grass originally planted brown grass and alfalfa on our biggest pasture area. But since that time we have encouraged many other grasses to come in including like I mentioned the native Harry grasses we’ve over seeded with some other animals to help boost the sugar content of the grass. Some of the rye grasses. But we also over seed very commonly with every year in fact with legumes and legumes that we choose are typically the clover and annual less BDA which is a which grows very very well here and grows in the middle of summer when our forage quality declines so that we have a little bit of a good protein boost there with the annual less FDA. And we also have the good fortune of having naturally occurring crab grass as a summer annual that recedes itself every year.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:52:16] And we see we get a lot of that in as as our warm season grass that we encourage and we manage the grazing so that it can set seed and reseed every year. We have a we have a section of pasture it’s actually I mentioned that that tobacco base that we first started with I ended up planting that all too native warm season grasses and that serves as a seed bank for us in the fall we put our animals on there after the seeds have set and they consume the seeds and then we move them to a pastor where we want to incorporate some of the native Curry grasses. And that’s been that’s been a very successful way for us to get more native Murray grasses growing in our pastures.
Tim Young: [00:53:34] Let’s start with the cheese making for just a second. I think cheese making no matter how much you’ve done it. You know most people who are listening to this haven’t made cheese are there. Maybe they’re you know they’re interested but people are fascinated with cheese making and I could never get past you know my excitement. You know while the river the Red it worked again I’ve got to go I go up here. You know it’s just magical. You know I still love that after all these years but I’d like for you to walk us through making a cheese. Let’s take something. Sure. Let’s think something like dirt lover from the beginning to the end. Don’t don’t share any culture secrets or whatever but walk us through what the entire process is to make it an age. Cheese like Dirt Lover or what and what is Dirt Lover.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:54:13] Lover so Dirt Lover is a soft ripened Ash coated 100 percent sheep’s milk cheese with a blooming rind. And so if you think of some of the traditional French cheeses like Valens say or sells or share those or goat’s milk cheeses. But that’s kind of how what we patterned lover after. But you know many of the steps and she’s making are are the same regardless. And but there are many points control points in the process where you can change a little bit what you’re doing and you get a completely new cheese. And I like to tell people that cheese making is really the art of removing water from milk and that’s that’s the 30000 foot view of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get water out of the milk and concentrate all those solids. So with with our dirt lover for example we. We pasteurized milk of course. And then we get the milk down to just the right temperature for the cultures that we’re going to add back into the milk. And that’s that’s one of the control points. What temperature are you going to ripen the cheese out are you going to you you’re going to add those cultures at a temperature that they like best.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:55:30] Or maybe you’re going to pressure them a little bit or slow them down a little bit like choosing a temperature that they don’t like so well you know that’s up to the cheese maker. And so you put those cultures in there once you get it to the temperature that you want get the milk to the temperature that you went through in those cultures and then you get those cultures a little bit of time to wake up and start growing.
[00:55:50] And we measure as cheesemakers we measure how fast our cultures are growing by measuring the amount of lactic acid that the cultures are producing because she’s making cultures eat essentially they metabolize lactose and turn it into lactic acid. So we can measure lactic acid with a p h meter and and monitor and follow how how well our cultures are growing.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:56:17] So we’re keeping close watch on on how fast the cultures are growing and at just the right point that we’ve determined because of the kind of cheese we’re making we’ll add an enzyme called run it and that enzyme actually makes the proteins sticky and through kind of a complicated molecular process.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:56:40] But basically what it does is it allows all the proteins to stick together and they begin to form this mesh. This great big sponge of protein in your milk and by the time you’re done with the remitting process you open up the VAT. And what you’ve got in there is this beautiful that full of milk jello and jiggles like jello and it looks like like milk jello and there’s that.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:57:04] Here’s another important tip of course you can. Cheese maker can control how much rent do you add how fast do you let it set how long do you let it set these are all important control points. But at this point is one of the most important control points in cheese making. We get to cut the curd and cutting the curd is a really important point of deciding how much water are you going to remove from that milk. So for example if we’re making a really high moister cheese like our soft spreadable fresh cheese we don’t really cut the curd at all we just scoop it with big scoops and put it into bags to drain. But if we’re making a semi soft cheese like our dirt lover we all take special cheese knives and cut the curd into about hazelnut sized cubes. And so we get that we get this surface area around the outside of the cube with the curd and when we’re done cutting it we have this bag full of beautiful curds and way the Kurds are floating in the way. And if you were a little Miss Muffet you’d have kitchen bowl and have your lunch right. And it’s actually really delicious. We’ve we’ve done that.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:58:18] But at that point now what we want to do is we want to separate the Kurds which is the solid part from the liquid part which is the way and we scoop the Kurds out and we pour them into molds that are going to give eventually give the cheese its shape and that’s an important another important control point is what size mold do we put it in. How many holes does it have in it to let the way move away.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:58:44] If we were going to make one of our really hard cheeses like our mountain style cheeses we would not cut the curd into hazelnut size pieces like we do for the dirt lover. We would actually keep cutting it for almost a half an hour until we got the curd down to about right size pieces. Right. And then that’s what we have is those those those little tiny pieces have this big surface area relative to their volume and lets lots of the way come out of them and then we do a few more things to the to the curd like we cook it and stir it for another hour to get even more of the way to come out of the curd and then through our hard cheeses we scoop the curd out into its forms and we put it in a press to squeeze even more of the way out of it so you can see we. That’s our cheese that we take the most way out of with the dirt lover.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:59:38] Once we’ve scooped it into the forms that are going to give it its shape we let it sit overnight to continue draining and then it will then.
Tim Young: [00:59:47] What’s the what are the temperature requirements in the room while you’re doing that or does that matter.
Sarah Hoffman: [00:59:52] No it definitely matters we want to leave that fairly warm so about seventy four seventy five degrees and in the morning when we come in we salt that cheese and that’s the point at which we we we want to slow down the culture so that they’re they slow down or stop consuming lactose and then the cheese is pretty it is very nice and firm at that point we put the coating the dusting of of ash on the outside and that ash helps to make sure that just the right kind of rind grows in on the on the cheese and then we put that put the cheese let the cheese dry for another day in a warm room and then we put it into our aging room at about fifty five degrees and let that beautiful blooming rind grow in on it.
Tim Young: [01:00:45] And that bloomy rind since you didn’t mention doing any spraying afterwards you’re doing the penicillin candidum I’m as part of your culture mix or your culture cocktail I assume.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:00:53] We do it we we add it to the milk and we also spray it on at the at the third day of aging.
Tim Young: [01:01:01] And you’ve and with that particular style of cheese you’re running you said fifty five degrees are you shooting for like ninety five percent humidity or we’re yet there yeah somewhere between ninety and ninety five percent humidity so every really interesting question that is a struggle for many US as small artisan cheesemakers is the cheese cave How is your cheese cave itself constructed. Is it a walk in cooler or freezer or what is it.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:01:26] We have we actually have four walk in rooms that are made of essentially the same kind of stuff that walk in refrigerators are made out of and each of them has a and evaporator in it it’s a real struggle to have a good aging room that maintains just the right kind of temperature and humidity that you want and I wouldn’t say that we have found the perfect setup we’ve just found the least cost that but it’s not the most efficient because we have to we have to attend to it a lot right.
Tim Young: [01:02:06] I found it very tough I mean temperature was you know a lot easier to control than humidity particularly in the wintertime I found that humidity was a real challenge you find that oh yes we use it especially if we are our cheese making has slowed down and once our rooms start to empty out it’s really hard to maintain that high humidity. So we use a an ultrasonic humidifier to help us if we’re getting really low on humidity so I don’t know if you’re tone cheeses or be Lennon’s or what they are but you have some reddish cheeses and you have some blooming right cheeses so I’m sure you’re keeping those in separate cheese.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:02:42] Yeah. They need to be in separate although we have we have aged them together. We know it’s possible but you risk a lot of failures.
Tim Young: [01:02:53] Well yeah at least you’re not making blue cheese if you make blue cheese it’s going to be everywhere. Oh right. Chips. You don’t want to. You don’t want to age those with your blueberries on it.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:03:02] And that’s exactly why we don’t make the blue cheese. We know we need to have a separate aging facility and we run out of space.
Tim Young: [01:03:08] All right. One hundred percent of your milk going to your cheese.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:03:14] Yes.
Tim Young: [01:03:15] So have you looked at I mean yogurt. Have you looked at ice cream or are there other problems since you’re making since you’ve got pasteurization there I mean are there other things that you can be doing.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:03:24] Well we we have looked at ice cream and we haven’t. We have a recipe that we’d like to to to bring to market. But just you know we we ate it when when all of this happened in 2015 we were in a very critical economic place and we can continue to be to really be struggling economically and what you know with this one of the decisions we had to make was OK it’s time to stop messing around with these other things let’s focus on the thing that we do really well and get that out there.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:04:02] And we did do we did yogurt for a while as well. But one of the things that I discovered one of the mistakes one of the many mistakes that we made it was that we tried to make yogurt in the same facility where we were making gloomy rind or mold ripened cheeses. And it’s very very difficult to get the kind of shelf life that distributors require and frankly if you’re going to make yogurt you have to sell you know at volume through a distributor. If we were going to to try to get the kind of shelf life that they require we’re going to struggle with periodic mold contamination or yeast contamination. And at one point we were making a beer wash cheese and we brought this beer yeast in which was incredibly robust and you know it was really difficult to keep out of the yogurt. We kept having we called it champagne yogurt.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:05:02] We have carbonated yogurt that was exploding on our grocery store shelves and we had to buy it back. And so you know eventually we said OK no more yogurt and we never we’ve never got it. We haven’t yet gone down our ice cream dream path because you’re trying really hard right now to make what we’ve got going work.
Tim Young: [01:05:24] That’s really intriguing because like you said with cheese making you know you’re trying to get the water out of the milk to concentrate the solids and you can still go from soft cheeses the hard cheeses but with yogurt it’s not the case. I mean yogurt you can turn pretty much all the milk into the yogurt and have a sellable product. But according to what you said you have to you have to scale that which means you’ve got to sell through distributors. Then if we start doing an economic analysis on this what’s the best farm enterprise. It brings up in it you know a perplexing decision so on your existing products your cheese. What percentage are you selling direct which grows at a higher price point versus are you selling to a distributor.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:06:04] So we’re we’re selling about 40 percent of our cheese right now through direct sales of one kind or another either in our either in our own shop or on our website or direct to to wholesale customers and I said 60 percent to distributors.
Tim Young: [01:06:23] Yeah. And of course that’s at a much lower. I mean I know. I know your numbers are different. I don’t want to get into your numbers but when I’m selling cheese I was selling cheese to distributors at twelve dollars a pound. And that cheese would be in the grocery stores at 28 to 30 dollars a pound. So when I saw when I sold direct to customers I would sell at twenty five dollars a pound or I would sell to distributor at twelve dollars a pound. Now the tradeoff of course as you know is it was super convenient to sell to distributors they back up a truck and take a boatload of cheese. And I had to deal with one customer or two customers or whatever but you gotta make a lot more cheese to make the same amount of money. You know so for you to be successful in yogurt you would have to invest in another facility and you would have to.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:07:05] Yeah I mean I think the trade off of. Of having to sell to a distributor could be worth it because you get so much more yield you turn all the milk into a product. Yes.
Tim Young: [01:07:15] Is it’s something is it’s something you’re going to think about in the future.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:07:17] Oh I think about it all the time I just you know it’s just the weight of it. Don’t don’t hit me up for a loan. That’s right. That’s where this is going as I say.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:07:30] I would love to do the yogurt again I and we we have to this our new shop which we just opened in 2016 we opened the shop and one of the reasons that we actually bought the building the shop building is that it was originally built in the late 80s to be a winery and the top part of the building was was going to be the wineries tasting room and the bottom part of the building was the production area. So it has this fantastic space in the basement of this building that could be a production area we are using it now primarily for for warehousing and storage and there is a dock out in the back so we can use it for our shipments out at the farm. When I originally built the farm I didn’t plan for distribution and we live on a hill and the semi trucks don’t like to come up there so and we had to we had to put our products when we were selling from the farm only and we didn’t have this location for our shipping. We had to put our products on a pallet and put our get our tractor out with the forks and drive the pallet out to the road because the semi couldn’t fit in our driveway to get to the cheese kitchen. So you know we we really were struggling with that level of growth because I hadn’t planned for it. Another one of my many mistakes and this building that we purchased in 2000 and followed 2015 solves many of those problems.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:09:06] One of the things that I hope in the future to do is when we’ve got the cash flow is to build a yogurt processing facility in the basement.
Tim Young: [01:09:19] You know in terms of the cash flow or how you fund that I mean I haven’t asked you how you funded your farm because I know you came from a professional world so I assume you bought your own farm and figured that out but I also think along the way somewhere you’ve picked up as many of us have a couple of value added producer grants for your farm. Is that a possibility and have you thought about looking at something like that to create a your business.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:09:42] Well I actually do have a value added producer Grant for yogurt but when all of these things happened three years ago I backed off from that because to me what really made this business what our customers really wanted was the cheese. And while I think that yogurt was starting to get some traction and would have been I think it was I I love our yogurt. It’s a wonderful product. I think we could do really well with it. But if we weren’t we hadn’t yet proven it. And so I’m hoping I can use that. Value added producer Grant and and bring the yogurt back to market. But we’ll see.
Tim Young: [01:10:32] I have to say I admire your discipline. I’ve got a feeling that you don’t feel like you are discipline because you keep mentioning all these mistakes and stuff like that but one of the things inherent to having a farm business that we all share is there are so many opportunities. I mean and we all become these entrepreneurial crazy farmers and we see all the possibilities and start trying to create everything. But you’re showing a lot of discipline by not just going out and trying to create that yoga business even though there’s an opportunity there but it’s super tough isn’t it to pull back on.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:11:03] I would say I learned that the hard way by being undisciplined first. And you know recognizing wow if I really if I want this to survive and and I want it to be a legacy I want it to have meant something and B had the purpose that I had hoped for. I have to get disciplined I have to learn how to be a businessperson. I have to bring all of my my crazy ideas under control. And you know do what. What needs done. You know get it done.
Tim Young: [01:11:43] So until yogurt happens you’re stuck with making cheese and you’re making cheese. That means you’ve got a lot of way to deal with what do you do with your whey.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:11:50] We we have a special whey drain in our cheese kitchen so that we can pump the way out to holding tanks on the outside of the building and then we have a couple of cheap pig farmers that come by a couple times a week and pick it up and feed it to their pigs and they love it. They’re pigs love it. Unfortunately we we it’s not nutritionally dense enough for them to buy it from us. But at least they take it away and we don’t have to put it down our septic system.
Tim Young: [01:12:19] Yeah right that’s good and it’s and it’s local and keeps in the community. I haven’t heard you mention anything about lamb meat. I mean are you are you are you dealing with that at all.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:12:29] Yes. So we do have we do of course lambs are a natural byproduct of lambing time and producing milk. You have to have lambs to get milk. And so you know every year we have you know close to 200 lambs or over 200 lambs and we do sell lamb meat. It’s not it’s not a very profitable product and it’s a challenge to market it.
Tim Young: [01:13:00] Yeah. And I don’t know how you deal with processing but processing was the big bottleneck for us and dealing with lambs. I mean it’s just expensive to get lambs processed and not a lot of people to do it. So it’s harder to make money with that right yeah.
Tim Young: [01:13:13] I’d like to dive into it for just a second. You know on farm events because that’s one of the things I’ve admired so much about what you have done over the past decade you have so many types of events through the year. They all sell out. They do. They do a great great job of connecting you and your products with the community so can you describe how this came to be. I mean what’s your strategy with farm events.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:13:40] Well you know the first event came to be kind of through A series of serendipitous coincidences. And one of which was that we happened to have someone come to us in 2007 right before we were about to launch the commercial cheese kitchen and he said he had been a restaurant manager in fine dining in Kansas City and actually had come from New York City with with Lidia Bastianich who was a well-known restaurateur to help her open her Kansas City restaurant. And so she was very very knowledgeable about fine dining and restaurant managing. And he’d been in restaurant managing in Kansas City for since late 90s. And he got really tired of it burned out on it and came to us and said hey I really want to work in a job where I can get closer to the land and I can get back to closer to where food is produced. And so he actually came to work for us on the farm in 2007 and milk sheep and you know move sheep and set up fence and you know did all the farm jobs and and was terrific and in 2008 when we were about to launch the cheese kitchen open the commercial cheese catch them he came to me and said you know hey let’s let’s have an open house and I can help you organize that stuff. I was like yes let’s do that. And he organized an open house and we had a thousand people come. And it was it was a fantastic thing for us it really put us on a lot of people’s radar. He had a lot of his chef friends from Kansas City come up to the came up to the open house and and it was a terrific event. And then the following year what is now or events barn was had been our lambing barn it was originally built to be our lambing and cheese kitchen barn but we ultimately discovered it was too small to support a business and ended up building the commercial cheese kitchen somewhere else on the farm.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:15:56] And that just became our what was originally meant to be our dairy parlor became our lambing burn and it and it’s a really lovely barn with an old salvaged stained glass window in one end and lots of salvaged wood and reclaimed wood in it. And. And he came. We were we were wrestling with the problem of you know so many of our farmer’s market customers kept wanting us wanting to come to the farm and tour the farm and we’re thinking you know we’re we’re busy making cheese. We we can’t host you at the farm how are we going to do that. But we realized that our our customers really wanted to come up and connect that way. And so he came and said Hey let’s. Let’s clean out this barn and do some events here. Let’s have some cheese tastings I’ll get some of my my chef friends to come up and cook dinners and that’s what really started the whole farm to table dinner events on the farm. And we get really great chefs from Kansas City who come up and they are there they they love being at the farm and loved producing a meal around what’s fresh and what’s local and we give them access to all the products of the farm. So you know they use a couple of lambs for every dinner and and the dinners have sold out every single year.
Tim Young: [01:17:22] Is this the kind of thing that you pay chefs for or are you just. You make them the product available and they do it for you.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:17:29] The first two years that we didn’t pay them but then we realized you know hey we’ve got to you know in order for this to keep going. We have to give them a reason to come up. You know that that makes it financially viable for them too because that’s you know their time is is money and yeah. We did start to pay them on that in the third year we started giving them a stipend for coming up but we’ve had a very loyal following of chefs and the fantastic thing about our events has been that that community connection that ability for us to create relationships with the people who come up and and you know come to the events and with the chefs themselves who feature us on their menus and with that word of mouth has been really invaluable from a marketing perspective and really helped us to to jump start our marketing and our reputation at your at your farm dinners in addition to wonderful food and cheese do you also serve alcohol. Yes.
Tim Young: [01:18:40] So from an insurance point of view what are the ramifications or what did you have to do to deal with any liability issues. Or have you not. Or have you dealt with it.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:18:53] Well our. I assume we’ve dealt with it because we have liability insurance because you have an umbrella policy so that nothing is never an umbrella policy. We’ve had that from the get go before offering alcohol. Of course we have. We have to get the alcohol liquor licenses for both of our locations where we serve alcohol.
Tim Young: [01:19:16] That’s right. That’s part of it. I want to insure you that unless you’re unless you’re up there they won’t give you that unless you’re insured so you’re also yeah.
Tim Young: [01:19:23] So in addition to farm dinners you have cheese appreciation dinners also I assume that’s without a chef that is without a chef?
Sarah Hoffman: [01:19:32] That’s just hosted by myself or one of our other cheese enthusiasts on the farm. And and oftentimes it’s a collaboration. So we co-host with other small batch food makers in Kansas City that’s been a wonderful way to build relationships to is to reach out to you know through our store because we carry their products in our store but also to other small farmers and small batch food artisanal food makers. We partner with them and we’ll pair will pair our cheeses with what they make. We have a local guy who does really fantastic cured meats. He’s he’s also a chef.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:20:17] So he does comes up and does the farm to table dinners but we also do a collaboration where we pair five of our cheeses with five of his meats. And will we partner with local craft brewers and local wine makers to pair our cheeses and wines with them.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:20:37] We have a wonderful local baker who we we pair she creates pastries with our cheeses and we’ll have a tasting of that chocolate. A local chocolate maker repair our cheeses with the chocolate. We have a wonderful local champagne bar called Salar where we do a champagne and cheese tasting and then one of my my all time favorite one every year is that we do stinky cheese and dessert wine. Mm hmm. And that’s always fun.
Tim Young: [01:21:15] No. Yeah I’d love to be at that one that’s fantastic. What do you think in 2019. How many farm dinners will you have and how many choose appreciation events do you think.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:21:24] We’re probably gonna have around 10 dinners and tens of the smaller scale dinners one of the things that we’ve found is that we can also host festivals on the farm so we had festivals we had we were actually in the path of totality so we did a solar eclipse festival red or and or gifted people come out to the farm.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:21:45] But this year this past year we did too. We called them Sunday suppers. Next year we’re gonna do Saturday cookouts because we found that Sunday is all is harder for our customers to get up here.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:21:57] But we did pig roasts and lamb roasts and that’s kind of a larger scale buffet style kind of picnic style event rather than the more formal sit down fine dining event at our farm to table dinners are now in terms of profit margin not absolute profit dollars because the businesses the enterprises are different sizes but in terms of margins are you finding the agro tourism side the event side to be your highest margin enterprise.
Tim Young: [01:22:30] I mean I found the same thing and I give so many new farmers this advice they’re talking about what they’re doing. But what I always see is so much interest on the part of consumers to want to be closer to this and look they’re paying money to go to all kinds of entertainment venues. They want to spend those dollars locally too. But so many farms don’t do what you’re doing. I think it’s brilliant what you’re doing because it not only is it a potentially lucrative enterprise but as you’re I’m sure you’re finding it creates a bond between those consumers and what you’re producing as your other enterprises.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:23:02] Absolutely. And you know if this is one of the things that I feel like I learned from from listening to our customers about what they want they want that experience they want that connection. They love having That connection to us you know so that they may feel like you know like I felt when I wanted to start the business I want to be I want to have that connection to where my food’s coming from and to the natural world and I want to hear the stories about what happens on a farm. And you know I want to be part of those stories and that’s what our our customers are really really hungry for. I like to say.
Tim Young: [01:23:44] You know just a couple of final questions I’ve been too generous with your time so I’ll let you get back to milking and cheese making. But I know you’re 30 minutes or so you know 30 40 minutes from Kansas City. A lot of people who start their farms like like in my case I was two and a half hours from Atlanta and a lot of people are far out in the country. How important do you think it is if you were starting over and finding your land and you were gonna do what you’re doing now but you weren’t 30 minutes from a big market you were two hours away could you still do this or what changes would you have to make in your business to be successful if you were more rural.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:24:19] Wow I yeah I think it would be very hard because the time drain so we started doing farmer’s markets and I think a lot of farmers do start out doing farmer’s markets a lot. That’s a huge time sink to do a farmer’s market it’s a 12 hour day very long and exhausting. And then you’ve got to come home and make cheese right. So I think that would just make that all of much more difficult to have to travel two hours to come and do the farmer’s market. Mm hmm yeah. The other aspects are that I think so it has been a real benefit to us to be where we are 20 minutes away from the Kansas City International Airport so we can ship our cheese via Southwest Air Cargo.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:25:11] And and that’s been terrific and we also we can get to FedEx right there and get our cheeses out and send them ground and have them get many places in one day. So that’s been a real that that has been a real benefit to us and I think on the other hand I think you’d have to crunch the numbers on it because we pay a lot higher costs for being close to the city you know higher cost of farmland in terms of rent in terms of of property taxes in terms of our utilities in terms of our you know just. Just all of the costs I think are typically higher. Our insurance is higher because of the location close to the city.
Tim Young: [01:26:07] So if you’re going to get any labor for the farm it’s gonna be more expensive as well. I mean sure you’re in a competitive market.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:26:15] I would say that that’s another consideration for being closer to a city is that the labor pool is bigger. It’s a real challenge to find the labor that we need.
Tim Young: [01:26:29] Yep. Tell me about it. I know exactly what you mean so. So last question given everything that you’ve learned and all these mistakes you think you’ve made. You know these learning experiences that you’ve had let’s say somebody you know from far away from you know Massachusetts Florida California whoever comes out to your farm.
Tim Young: [01:26:47] They see what you’re doing there and they just love what they see and they want to go back to their faraway farmstead and they want to. They want to start their own farms that cheese business and wants your advice. Would you recommend that they do it. And would you recommend they do it with sheep or what would you say to them.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:27:04] No. That’s a hard question. I would say that they that I would recommend that they not do sheep on their own farm that they find someone to to purchase sheep’s milk from and not make that their primary not make that their primary product. It’s a nice side product. And I think that we’re going to be able to make it be financially sustainable if we can reach our goals. But it’s it’s a real struggle and a long struggle.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:27:43] And as someone has told me over and over again you know this is not a sprint it’s a marathon but that’s really true. You have to have the financial resources to be able to weather all of the the the the difficult things that are going to happen. And I think sheep’s milk makes it even even harder to get to economic sustainability. Although it’s a fantastic and wonderful cheese sheep not to make cheese with and it makes beautiful cheeses. I’m not sure that the differentiation in the marketplace pays a return on that kind of investment you have to make in it. And then in the long run the other way I would recommend to people is that that they be they research their numbers better and then assume that the numbers are going to be twice that that they’re that their revenues are going to be half what they are going to get.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:28:45] They’re going to be quite so good with a finger because one of the big mistakes that we made early on that drove decisions with regard to what size we were going to be was that we we made the wrong assumptions about what things were going to cost and how much we could make. You know what what kind of price we could command in the marketplace.
Tim Young: [01:29:08] So your advice to that person would basically be if you really want to do this. Start an artisan cheese business but not a farmstead cheese business. In other words buy the milk to make the cheese but don’t own the animals and then make the cheese.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:29:22] Well I would I would hate to to give that advice to somebody who’s whose goal and desire is to you know be on a farm and make Farmstead Cheese. I think you can make Farmstead Cheese be economically viable. I think you just have to be prepared if you’re going to do it with sheep’s milk to have to buy in others kinds of milk if you want to. If you want to know your own sheep you have to be prepared to have a product mix that can help sustain the farm.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:29:53] And you know the you have to to to be prepared for the costs and the. And the the the difficulty of getting the kind of revenue that you need to get a good margin on the sheep’s milk.
Tim Young: [01:30:14] Mm hmm. Sara Hoffman from Green dirt farm green dirt farm dot com I think everybody should check out that farm and even fly all the way to Kansas City to go to one of the farm events because it’s a great example of both what’s what’s working and still what’s what’s difficult about having a farm business. Sarah thank you so much for joining small farming.
Sarah Hoffman: [01:30:35] You very much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
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