Farm to Table: Sheep's milk cheese from local Dayspring Dairy is worth adding to the menu
The family farm is usually an historic entity, a bucolic heirloom passed down across generations. Yet amid the growing popularity of urban vegetable gardens and backyard chicken coups, agriculture has become more accessible to people without those genealogical ties. When Greg and Ana Kelly started Dayspring Dairy in Gallant, Ala. two years ago, neither of them had a family history in farming. Now they’re creating a legacy of their own with the first sheep cheese farm in Alabama.
Greg had the initial idea for a farm. “I pretty much thought he was nuts,” says Ana. Greg, an IT professional, and Ana, a chef and food stylist, had good jobs and a comfortable suburban home in Hoover. Ultimately, though, they wanted an alternative kind of life for their family. The benefits of the farm — a slower pace, working for themselves, giving their kids hands-on experience in the country — outweighed the conveniences of the city.
The dairy grew out of their existing interest in cheese making. Greg would make mozzarella, and Ana enjoyed making yogurt. Then they visited a goat cheese creamery in northern Alabama, and Ana recalls thinking, “Maybe we should make cheese too.” Goats, however, weren’t appealing. It was after visiting a sheep dairy in Knoxville, Tenn. that their vision for the Alabama farm came together.
“Really, some of the best cheeses in the world are from sheep’s milk,” Ana explains.
Sheep’s milk is behind choice cheeses like Roquefort, Manchego, Greek and French feta, and Pecorino Romano — to name a few. For the Kellys, going into the sheep cheese business meant being the first in the state to carve out this niche in the market.
In order to make the vision a reality, they looked to buy an existing farm with a large pasture for grazing. They found an ideal 30 acres an hour’s drive northeast of Birmingham, but the farmhouse needed some work. The fixer-upper, however, made the farm affordable, and by May 2011 they sold their house and moved to the country.
Sheep dairies are seasonal, so building a self-sustaining farm takes time. Ewes have to lamb every year, and only produce milk for seven months afterward. Ana says the seasonal nature of sheep’s cycle offers a nice change of pace. It also makes offering both fresh and aged cheeses advantageous, so that the dairy can continue selling their products year round.
Today Dayspring has 70 sheep, and milks 12 ewes. They plan to milk 50 ewes next year, and be at full production of 150 milking ewes four years from now.
Dayspring was fully licensed for commercial cheese production this July. Currently, they sell their cheese at the Pepper Place Market on Saturday mornings. They’re starting this year with fresh cheeses, including Halloumi, ricotta, feta, and Brebis, a sheep’s milk version of chevre. By next year they plan to add aged cheeses like a blue cheese and Gouda. They also sell pasture and natural spring raised lamb at Freshfully.
With their farm now up and running, complete with a fully-functioning cheese-making plant, the Kellys have laid down some serious farming roots in two years.
When walking into the plant, Ana says she thinks to herself, “We did this, look at how far we’ve come.”
Learn more about Dayspring Dairy at www.dayspringdairy.com.