Barefoot and Pregnant

The food artist of the year is clear: Shepherd's Way Farms makes a glorious art of cheese, and survival


When City Pages asked me to name an artist of the year, one thought rang out in my mind like a church bell's peal: Shepherd's Way Farms, Jodi Ohlsen Read and Stephen Read, no question, no second thought, they're the ones. Of all the food-related moments that struck me in 2007, nothing hit me more deeply than my visit to that family's farm in southern Minnesota on a frigid winter day a few weeks ago, when I looked at a few hundred pregnant ewes huddled in the place where their lambing barn should be, a barn top suspended over them like a giant thought balloon, reading: We dream of a barn, baaa!

But before I tell you why the sight of a barn top hovering over pregnant ewes was my most haunting, echoing, disturbing, and, in some ways, hopeful image of the year, I feel a need to justify myself a little.

Where's Little Bo Peep when you need her? The currently homeless milk producers of Shepherd's Way Farms
Nathan Grumdahl
Where's Little Bo Peep when you need her? The currently homeless milk producers of Shepherd's Way Farms

I mean, are cheesemakers artists? I'd argue yes, of all the farming-related arts, good cheesemaking is the rarest skill, and one that blends the most disparate fields, including science (the various temperatures, molds, rennets, and whatnot), craft (washing rinds, salting curds, aging cheeses, and so on), and taste (a cheesemaker's individual product reflects her personal vision, palate, and ambition as clearly as a chef's does).

On top of all those skills, when you're talking about artisanal, regional cheesemaking the way the Reads do it—raising your own sheep on a particular parcel of land, and tending that land so that the sheep and land are each in the best possible condition, knowing that the flavors of your pasture are the things that make the milk, that the cheese is, ultimately, the expression of the land even more than of the sheep, and that any pollution of a stream or erosion of a pasture will ultimately ruin sheep, shepherd, and cheese—well, here you've got something else entirely. A cheesemaker who is a farmer who works like this is, I say, nothing less than a land-artist, an artist who uses her acres of pasture, scrub oaks, wind, and sky the way a conductor uses an orchestra to draw forth a piece of music that exists only at that very moment in time, and never again.

Cheesemakers have another thing in common with orchestra conductors: There are no orchestras in war-torn regions, and, likewise, great cheesemaking only happens in prosperous, stable, nurturing sorts of places. The whys and wherefores of this fact are pretty simple: Cheesemaking requires formidable infrastructure (vast stainless steel vats, milking sheds, caves, barns) and an economic ability to take today's milk and not sell it, but in fact pay to save it (labor, heat, and so on) for a few weeks, months, or years. It's not happenstance that the world's most politically and economically stable places have the richest cheesemaking traditions and best cheeses: Holland, Switzerland, France, England, and the wealthiest sections of northern Italy aren't just the home of the world's most revered cheeses, they're places that have, save a world war here and there, been more or less lands of law, order, peace, and prosperity going on a thousand years. Great pasture doesn't inevitably create great cheese; the world is brimming with beautiful pasture and farmers too wrecked to do anything with it. Great pasture plus great stability, law, and order create great cheese.

Speaking of law and order, the problem the Reads now face is one that comes from a lack of those. By early winter 2005, the Reads, Minnesota natives who were aware that Wisconsin had more supportive state systems for cheesemakers but started their farm here anyway, were the poster people for successful Minnesota cheesemaking. Their cheeses, especially the nutty, Manchego-like Friesago, had won every award in the book. They had the largest sheep dairy in the country. They had even been invited to Italy to represent our state at the annual Slow Food convention.

Then, in the dead of night, an arsonist crept onto their property and set fire to several bales of hay, torching tens of thousands of dollars' worth of their winter feed. The Reads were devastated, as anyone would be who had, through a stranger's cruelty, seen their year's profit destroyed. Things were about to get a lot worse. A few nights later, the sociopath returned and crept through the lambing barn. The lambing barn is where heavily pregnant ewes are kept in case they need help with delivery, and where newborn sheep stay with their mothers to be protected from the cold and to encourage healthy bonding, nursing, and so on. A lambing barn is essentially like a human maternity ward, but with new hay in place of clean sheets.

That new hay is where this awful man set his fire.

If you can imagine what would happen if an arsonist set a fire in a maternity ward, that's pretty much what happened in the lambing barn. The newborns died from the smoke; the ewes, even those the Reads pulled out into the safe snow, raced back into the fire and smoke to be with their babies. The casualties came in three waves. First, there were those sheep and lambs who died immediately from burns, smoke, or wounds inflicted by falling, flaming timber. Many of these animals were reported about in local media that day or that week, and anyone who was following the news in late winter 2005 might remember it.

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