How a Baby and a Herd of Sheep Turned a Couple of Amateurs Into Award-Wining Cheese Makers

The Reads skipped volunteering in West Africa to start a sustainable farm and creamery in Minnesota.

(Photo: Courtesy Shepherd's Way Farms)

Jan 6, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a restaurant critic for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and hosts the CBS radio food show Off the Menu.

When farmers take to Kickstarter, it’s often the first thing they do—raise money to get a new operation up and running. But there are two shepherds in Minnesota raising money on the crowdfunding site for the first time who have already been farming for years. The fund-raising effort is the culmination of an award-winning cheese-making career, a fiery tragedy, and a decades-long love story.

When Jodi Ohlsen Read met Steven Read, they were students at the University of Minnesota working at the Freshwater Society, an environmental group. He was a country boy, she a suburban kid, each fully committed to making the world a better place. Neither thought too much about sheep, however, or one of the world’s greatest cheeses, the French blue Roquefort, made from pastured sheep’s milk. They were too busy falling in love and racking up degrees, with Steven studying political science, community forestry, and African studies and Jodi writing. They made plans to go to West Africa to work for the Peace Corps. Then Jodi discovered she was pregnant.

(Photo: Courtesy Shepherd's Way Farms)

“I’ll never forget,” she recalls. “I was at home, folding little tiny clothes, and Steven walked in to the room: ‘What do you think of milking sheep?’ ”

That’s all it really took. They got 40 sheep not long after that, in 1996, and founded Shepherd’s Way Farms.

Being young, they didn’t know what they didn’t know, so they called up Steve Jenkins, author of the Cheese Primer, to ask the most basic question: What sort of cheese would he want to taste from an American farmstead sheep dairy? Aged, he said. Or blue. They decided to do both, developing an aged, Manchego-inspired cheese called Freisago and a Roquefort-like blue. While tinkering with the initial recipes, Jodi discovered that making cheese thrilled her. “When you take the [washed rind] Freisagos out of their hoops, they’re warm, they feel like something alive. It’s kind of like when you see a fat little warm baby; you just want to touch them and give them a little pat,” she says. “Then you launch them into the brine, and they go bobbing along like little boats out to sea. It sounds crazy, but they look happy, just bob-bobbing along. Some people have pictures of their kids on their phones—I have pictures of my kids and my cheeses.”

(Photo: Courtesy Shepherd's Way Farms)

Soon enough, they had an 80-acre corn farm in southern Minnesota that they converted to native pasture, and hundreds of ewes and lambs to herd across the grasslands.

The Reads have put their academic backgrounds to work, too, pulling together evidence on how a farmstead cheese operation might operate in the present day, evidence they share through the Minnesota Cheesemakers Guild (Jodi is the president) and Minnesota Farmers Union. They share how it’s important to have a meat operation raising pigs—to eat the leftover whey from cheese making—as well as to process the male lambs that inevitably come with the spring births for meat. They share how to shear the sheep and sell the wool for crafts or pet beds.

Still, making cheese in Minnesota is a bit of a lonely endeavor; the state doesn’t have the same cheese infrastructure of fromage superpower Wisconsin. In the early days of Shepherd’s Way, the Reads found themselves at a loss about whether they were making cheese that was good, bad, or what. To find out, they entered their first efforts in the 2003 American Cheese Society contest.

“We just did it for the feedback,” Jodi says. “They send you back your score sheets, and we figured we would hear what we were doing wrong.” But the couple missed out on feedback, for the most part. Instead, they took second place for aged sheep’s milk cheeses—in all of North America. Within a few years they took first place for their blue cheese, a bright veined creamy cheese, much like very young Roquefort—and decided they might not hire an outside cheese maker after all.

From then on, Jodi made the cheese—there was no point in hiring a professional. Every Friday she would load their four young boys in the minivan to deliver product to restaurants throughout the Twin Cities. Lucia’s, the iconic Minneapolis restaurant, was the last spot on the route, and if the boys were good, owner Lucia Watson would give them cookies or custardy French canelé to snack on. The herd grew. But life was not all prizes and cookies.

In 2005, in the dead of night, just as Shepherd’s Way was coming to national attention, the main lamb barn was set on fire—200 lambs and 300 ewes were lost, and many more required medical treatment. The barn burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, although no charges were filed, and years of dealings with insurance companies kicked in.

The Reads turned to community agriculture to save the farm, relying on Steven’s time spent studying collective forestry practices in college. Production dropped because of the lost lambs, but they diversified their sales to keep cash coming in. In addition to wholesale restaurant clients, they started a community supported agriculture program, delivering bundles of cheese to patrons every week at a nearby farmers market, and founded a limited liability company, called Farm Haven, in which local investors deposited money for the Reads to use to get through the rough patches. It may have taken nine years, but today they’re close to having completely recovered. If the current Kickstarter campaign is funded, they’ll be able to rebuild the last of the missing barns, giving the 189 pregnant ewes on the farm somewhere to have their babies.

Despite the ups and downs that followed, that fateful pivot from the Peace Corps to the pasture has proved to be endlessly rewarding. A lot of city folks have a fantasy of what it would be like to take a more rural path, and Jodi says it’s both harder and more beautiful than she could have expected.

“I’m surprised by my life,” she says. “I loved raising my boys somewhere they could decide to dig a big hole and fill it with water to play mud puddle. I complain bitterly about winter, but I love that smell when you come out one night and you know all the good stuff is right around the corner, that wet spring smell. I love when the lambs go out into the pasture the first green day; they spring like little kids; even the adults try to spring in the air. I even love how loud they are, when you go out in the field and they almost sound like a man faking being a sheep.”

“I love looking up when I go to check on the cheeses at night, to flip them one last time, when it’s super-black, with stars everywhere,” she continued. “And sometimes when I’m out there I think, 'We were on our way to West Africa!' ”

And after the sheep and the cheese are put down for the night, it’s off to the computer to check on the Kickstarter, a reminder of the great richness of high- and low-tech that is modern American farming.