Barefoot and Pregnant

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

Then came the unreported deaths: Over the year, another wave of sheep and lambs succumbed to aftereffects of the fire and died from smoke or trauma. By the time fall rolled around, the Reads had lost 320 ewes and all 200 of their new lambs—and without lambs, the ewes' milk dried up. The Reads were forced to stop milking in the fall of 2005. Once 2006 rolled in, the next wave of casualties started mounting: The Reads had been counting on insurance to cover some of their losses, but it was not so. They let go of all their staff except for a new night watchman who looks out for that cowardly arsonist, who is still at large. The Reads made a living by buying neighboring farms' sheep's milk and selling whatever inventory remained in their aging rooms. (The Shepherd's Way Friesago Grano, still in stores, was made with pre-fire milk.)

In 2007, the Reads tried to marshal their forces for the future, making enough cheese to supply their local distributor, Classic Provisions, and keep key clients, mostly in the Twin Cities, from moving on to the next hot thing. They got a local barn-preservation group to donate a historic local barn, and got the barn situated on their property. Ralph Nelson, with Loom architecture and design, donated services to engineer plans so that the barn top would have a bottom with foundation, masonry, wiring, and such. Jodi Ohlsen Read tells me that $50,000 is all that stands between them and a barn. They have some $48,700 to go. I mentioned Shepherd's Way's Adopt-A-Lamb program last month in my cheese roundup: Anyone can donate $100 and name, get a picture of, and sponsor one of the season's forthcoming lambs; a dozen of you, and me, sponsored lambs, and now the Reads are a 50th of the way to their goal.

Which is good, because the Reads learned at the end of the year that they won't be able to buy any more sheep's milk from neighbors, so they let their sheep get pregnant, despite the fact that when it comes time for them to give birth, there's not really anywhere to do so aside from some temporary plastic greenhouses.

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

When I drove down to Shepherd's Way last month, I could have wept: all those heavily pregnant ewes standing in a snow-covered field like so many Marys, stranded in icy Minnesota instead of comparatively bucolic Bethlehem, without even a manger to seek shelter in. Sheep, by the way, are given to a behavior called "flocking," which means they cling together in family groups. Given a choice between standing alone and gathering together, they will always choose companionship, which, when they're in a snow-packed field, is particularly heart-touching: They stand together, nuzzling face-to-face, but then one gets an idea to go somewhere, perhaps to a sheltering hillock or side of a building, and gingerly picks out a path; the others, seeing her go, apprehensively walk single-file behind her like old ladies forced to cross a stream on stepping stones. By the time they get to where they're going, they have such an aggrieved, plaintive aura you want to knit them all afghans and hand them hot cups of tea.

Of course, the Reads didn't want me to tell you any of this. They keep saying they don't want to be known exclusively for the fire, and they want everyone to know that the main things they took away from the incident were inspiration and hope, because there was such an outpouring from well-wishers and fellow fire survivors around the country. And, yet, I don't care what they want. I didn't grow up here, so I don't share the Minnesotan core belief that it's better to die quietly than to complain, so I'm telling you. I also write from a place of mercenary self-interest: The Reads are great cheesemakers.

Their Friesago is nutty, rich, sweet, a bit like a chestnut, and expresses the sweetness of green Minnesota black-earth pasture like nothing else I know of. Their Big Woods Blue is creamy and well balanced, but edged with a peppery, elegant minerality; pair it with an apple for one of the perfect tastes of our region. Their Shepherd's Hope, a fresh cheese with the texture of cream cheese and a light, lemony tang, is a wonderful everyday thing to spread on a bagel or press into service in a sandwich. When the Reads were using their own milk they were able to make a fresh ricotta, which was the only authentic ricotta in the entire country. And their Friesago Grano is, I think, not just a contender for the best cheese in Minnesota, but one of the great American cheeses, period. If this all goes away because no one besides the Reads knew anything was wrong, I will be not merely poorer in terms of my local cheese plate, but heartbroken. If you find yourself in front of the cheese case in the coming months, wondering what to pair with your crackers and wine, perhaps this thought could be your tiebreaker: Man, is it hard to be a land-artist in a land this cold.

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