Barefoot and Pregnant

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

SHEPHERD'S WAY FARMS
www.shepherdswayfarms.com

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.

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.

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.

So I nominate Shepherd's Way as my artist of the year. History is full of tales of great artists who continued to make art through periods of great hardship: The Soviet dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poetry in jail using a match and a bar of soap; she'd memorize each day's lines and wash her tablet clean. Beethoven composed though deaf. Kafka wrote through tuberculosis—the list goes on. One of the things the rest of us mere humans admire most about artists is their commitment to their art through thick and thin, and I think it's worth noting that one of our greatest local food artists is really in the thick of it.

"We're hoping the lambing has been spaced so that it will be coming not in January, but later," Jodi Ohlsen Read told me one night on the telephone, as she made a cheese quiche for her four boys' dinner. "But it's the kind of thing where if there's good weather, they'll start having them. So we'll fit who we can into the greenhouse. When they're nursing sometimes they'll nurse every few seconds, and it's nice for them to be away from predators: the coyotes and, potentially, owls. The 12 people who adopted a lamb really helped, and we now have a lamb named Noodle!

"People always ask us: Are you back to normal? You feel like if you say anything but yes, you're disappointing them. When we originally started this farm we were very idealistic, but then of course you get caught up in the everyday work. One of the things we were grateful about with the fire was that it became a natural time to look back at what we were doing and say: If we want change, this is the time to do it. But we realized, this is the impact we want to have on the world, this is exactly what we want to do creatively and physically. So many people reached out after the fire, we had thousands of cards and letters, and all these people came down to work, to help clear out the burnt barn or treat the surviving animals. People were just amazing, so kind. The only thing I can think of as a parallel was, it was like a funeral where you get to hear what people are saying about you; it was really sustaining."

Shepherd's Way cheeses are available at specialty cheese shops including Premiere Cheese, E's Cheese, Surdyk's Cheese Shop, Farm in the Market, all of the co-ops including the Wedge, Lakewinds, Linden Hills, the East Side Co-op, and the Mississippi Markets, the St. Paul Whole Foods, and some bigger grocery stores including many Kowalski's Markets and almost all of the Byerly's and Lunds.

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