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Green Dirt and Cheese

Green Dirt Farm, our latest Potash Featured Artisan, illustrates the added value of true artisan cheese.

When you purchase a wedge of cheese or a piece of charcuterie from our gourmet cheese department you can expect to get something delicious and authentic. In addition, your purchase might help to support a traditional cheesemaking operation in the Netherlands, a start-up Chicago salami maker or a farmstead goat operation in Illinois.

It might surprise you to learn too, that you are helping to preserve the rich soil of the Midwest or that your purchase helps farmers provide more humane treatment for their animals. Many artisan cheese products do just that. Potash Markets is proud to offer an array of products that have these added attributes, and our latest Potash Featured Artisan cheesemaker, Green Dirt Farm, Weston, Mo., is a great example of a cheesemaker that offers those added values in its products. The farm maintains a flock of about 150 sheep, and makes excellent sheep milk and mixed milk cheeses that are as good as any in the country.

“My original vision was that we would be an organic vegetable farm,” says Sarah Hoffmann, who founded the creamery in 2007. “Soil conservation is always top of mind for anybody who does organic farming, and I think most conventional farmers are concerned about it too.”

That perspective began to take shape for Hoffman when she worked an internship with a pioneer organic farmer starting in 1998. And it helped guide Hoffman’s plans for the farm property she and her family acquired in 2000. While organic produce seemed a logical step, artisan cheese was another option, and one that Hoffmann had some familiarity with. While growing up, she had an aunt who owned a gourmet cheese shop in New Jersey, and Hoffmann herself worked with her a bit while attending college.

“She started the business back in the ‘70s, and she was in the vanguard of women small business owners. She taught me to love really good cheese,” Hoffmann says. “She was an inspiration in so many ways.”

Green Dirt’s name has a bit to do with the famous Dr. Seuss book (Hoffmann and her husband were raising three children while planning the creamery) and is partially a reflection of the farm’s soil conservation practices—a recognition that soil is alive and needs to be cared for. That proposition is succinctly described on the farm’s website:

We give rigorous attention to managing the grazing of our flocks in order to build healthy soil and grow nutritious pasture grasses. Raising our sheep on carefully tended pastures not only produces happy sheep and high-quality, flavorful milk; it also prevents soil erosion and helps to build top soil.

Small farmstead cheesemakers are farmers first, and cheesemaking is itself a way for them to add value to their agricultural produce. Proper care of the animals is important to milk quality, and milk quality is crucial to quality cheesemaking. In order to ensure that this is easily expressed to customers who are paying premium prices for farmstead cheese, many cheesemakers acquire certifications. Green Dirt Farm is Certified Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) by A Greener World. Our first Potash Featured Artisan, Consider Bardwell Farm of Vermont, has the same certification.

“We're proud to say we've had the AWA certification since 2008 when they were quite new on the scene,” Hoffmann says. “The certification confirms and validates to our customers that we have a personal commitment to humane practices. The way it works is that once a year the AWA auditor reviews every aspect of our practices on the farm to ensure that we are complying with their stringent policies. This includes how much time animals spend outside, their freedom to engage in normal social interactions (species specific), as well as restricting conventional farming practices that cause pain or unacceptable stress. The AWA label has been identified by Consumer Reports to be the most meaningful humane label out there.”

While organic certification is also possible for cheesemakers, it is not terribly feasible, so the majority of American artisan cheesemakers are not organic. Farmstead cheese is made on the farm, using only the milk from animals that live on that farm. Where that is not practical, a dedicated source, close to the creamery also allows for excellent milk quality. In addition, farming methods and animal care impact the animals and the cheese and even soil and water conditions on the farm as well as downstream and downwind.

Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., is one of the most awarded cheesemakers in the U.S., with a specialty in blue cheeses. It has worked to convert to 100% organic milk, and it is a B Corporation--a certification that reflects progressive business practices like providing living wages to all employees, and efforts to minimize negative environmental impact. Vermont Creamery, a pioneer in American artisan cheese, is also a B Corporation. California pioneers Cowgirl Creamery uses all organic milk in its cheeses. Jasper Hill Creamery, Greensboro, Vt., was started by two brothers and their wives less than 20 years ago. It employs around 100 people and works in collaboration with several neighboring cheesemakers to get Vermont cheeses to consumers nationwide. Green Dirt, and our previous Featured Artisan, Sequatchie Cove Creamery, of Tennessee, also contribute to the body of knowledge on breeding cows and sheep for quality cheese milk. And while several small artisan cheesemakers in North America have recently been purchased by larger concerns, the vast majority of them remain independent, family-owned operations. Many are helping to bolster local economies and maintaining rural farming traditions.

While we at Potash are thrilled with the re-emergence of American artisan cheese, we love the old-world cheese making traditions too. When you buy authentic, name-protected cheeses from Italy, Switzerland or France, you help to maintain centuries of cheese tradition and legacy. Many of those express terroir, or “taste of place” that are not easily replicated here.

Sheep give much less milk than cows, and considerably less than goats, but the milk is rich in milk fat and solids and in the hands of skilled makers, it can produce excellent cheese. Green Dirt’s team, which includes Hoffmann’s daughter Eliza Spertus, has been recognized through numerous awards, and in a 2018 feature article in CULTURE magazine. Their cheeses are innovative, technically brilliant and beautifully packaged. Currently at Potash we are carrying the plain sheep milk spread, a couple of flavored spread, the award-winning bloomy rind, Dirt Lover. Winter Woolly, a brie-style cheese was in the mix recently, as was Aux Arcs, a mixed milk tomme. They may visit our cases again in the future. Stop by the cheese counter and let us know about your favorite cheeses.

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