Monday, January 07, 2008

Stoney Acres Farms

I dig cheese. Because it's my main source of protein, I eat a lot of it. Every kind (except Monterey Jack, which doesn't even resemble cheese). I could probably buy a new Jetta with the money I spend on cheese annually. So, it was no surprise when I returned my eggplants and green beans to the Mennonite seller three years ago upon seeing Richard's table of cheese at the local farmer's market. I made so little money when I first moved to Missouri that I had to choose what was most important to me. I went without a lot of what I considered necessities in New Orleans. I worked for minimum wage with no benefits and lived between a maintenance shop and a tent, but I couldn't pass up homemade organic sheep milk cheese. Richard returned to Competition, Missouri with an empty cooler.

Richard and Debra moved to the Ozarks from Wisconsin 11 years ago. Sheep milking was catching on in Wisconsin as a sustainable form of agriculture back then; now, there are over thirty farms milking sheep in Wisconsin, mostly in the northern part of the state. Wisconsinites don't like to brag about it, what with their leadership in the cheesemaking world being taken away from them by California, but they are the largest producers of sheep milk cheese in the country.

Sheep are significantly easier on the land than dairy cattle. Sheep can graze 4-5 animals/per acre, but one acre can only support one cow. When Richard first told his Missouri neighbors that he was going to raise sheep, some of them laughed, that this is a cattle state. Sheep are too hard on the land! It's a myth, Richard tells me, that sheep will pull up the roots of grasses and forbs ("maybe if they're penned up too much," he adds). But Richard doesn't have to worry about any kind of land degradation on his farm. He allows 48 sheep to graze freely on 20 of his 150 acres, offering a grain mix of oats, sorghum, corn and wheat as a supplement. Sheep don't compact the soil with their trampling and their manure serves as fertilizer. The main difference between raising cattle and sheep is the fencing. Sheep, when they have wool on, can waltz through a barbed wire fence. He uses chicken wire. Milking sheep have really coarse wool, so Richard uses it as a weed barrier in the garden rather than for making yarn.

The sheep at Stoney Acres Farms are fed worming medication only once, just after birth. For the rest of their lives, they are not given any medications or hormones. Food grade diatomaceous earth is added to their grain every couple of weeks to keep worms and other parasites at bay. Even without using chemicals, Richard's sheep and his cheese operation always pass FDA, USDA and state regulations. He's filling out registration papers for the label "natural food source." Because there are no suppliers of organic grain, he can't register as USDA Organic. But he's close. He doesn't use any fertilizers on his farm and keeps his animals free of chemicals.

Raw sheep's milk cheese can be made in 7 hours, from milking to processing. Of course, it takes another 12 hours for it to age and harden. Richard offers several kinds of fancy cheeses, but among my favorites are his gouda, Italian garlic, an herbed cheese with rosemary and tarragon, and a fantastic hickory smoked cheese. You can buy his cheeses (and soaps, lotions and smudge, sheep milk fudge) online here. Because he doesn't employ pasteurization, Richard won't ship midweek because he doesn't want to risk having his cheese rest in a UPS truck over a weekend.

If you're ever around Lebanon, Missouri, visit the farm. Richard invites everyone to camp on his beautiful Ozark acreage, hike around the woods, milk a sheep (they're lambing in Febrary; he allows the young to milk for 30 days before he harvests the milk for his products). He's one of only a few sheep farmers in the state, and he'll never raise dairy cattle. The stress on the land is too great, the overhead is too much, and the product isn't as good for you as sheep milk. It's higher in protein, riboflavin, B12 and has 50% more calcium than cow milk. As his brochures say, once you try sheep milk ewe'll never go back.

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