On the way home from a recent quick trip to visit Joanna’s parents in Arkansas, we fulfilled a long-time wish by arranging to visit Stoney Acres sheep dairy. Founded 13 years ago deep in the Missouri Ozarks, it was the first sheep dairy in the state, blazing a number of trails for small direct-market dairies to follow.
image linked from Stoney Acres website
Rick was pleased to have visitors and spent over an hour showing us around and answering questions. Their operation is simple and efficient; milking around 50 ewes who are kept on rotated pasture. The photo above shows their entire dairy infrastructure; the gambrel-roofed left side of the barn houses a small milking parlor that holds six ewes at a time, while the simple right side houses their cheese room, aging coolers, washing stations, and sales table.
It was fascinating to see a truly compact and efficient setup like this in which they have found many effective, legal shortcuts and cost-saving measures to keep things simple. They milk into metal cans, but freeze the milk so they don’t need a bulk tank (thus saving expense and cleaning needs). Both goat and sheep milk freeze well, and can be used after thawing for cheese-making. Their cheese-making area is a single stainless-steel table with associated sink, on which they make a few wheels of small-batch cheeses at a time. All the cheese is aged raw-milk, saving the need for a pasteurizer (another source of expense and cleaning needs). A restaurant-style steel cooler ages and stores the raw cheese, which by FDA rules is legal to sell after 60 days. On the other side of the room, a simple water heater and sink take care of sanitary needs. And that’s all they need.
Rick gave us a history of the dairy, which includes lots of conversations with the state dairy authorities to educate and convince them of his methods. This was the first sheep dairy in the state, and required some work to even be approved. Practices like freezing the milk needed work, too, as no one here had heard of that despite it being common practice elsewhere. Regardless, it was his opinion that the authorities had been and were pleasant to work with, and he didn’t find the regulations, testing, or other requirements particularly onerous.
He did have some funny/disturbing stories to tell about Federal authorities, including the Homeland Security folks who showed up and insisted on taking 200lb of cheese for contamination testing (apparently worried about bioterrorism). When he protested that this was more than his entire stock on hand, they eventually agreed to only take 75lb. Even though they paid for the cheese, this still wiped out his inventory and kept him from making sales and deliveries for a while. I don’t think he ever got an answer from their tests.
Another interesting and useful aspect of the visit related to their pastures. When the dairy was first established, much of the land now in pasture was abandoned and grown up in cedars (an extremely familiar concept to us). As we’re doing now, he simply got to work clearing the cedars, cutting the stumps off at the ground, and letting the remnant seed bank take over. Now, over a decade later, he has wide-ranging, beautiful pastures of mixed grasses. It was a great look into the future for us, as this is exactly what we’re working to achieve here.
We picked his brain about all sorts of sheep-dairy-related points, as this is something we very much want to expand into someday. There are many cheeses that can only be made authentically with sheep’s milk, including some like feta that need to be mixed with other milk (like goat, in feta’s case). We want to keep both sheep and goats down the road, having started with goats primarily because we had a friendly nearby goat dairy to learn from. If we’d settled near Stoney Acres, we’d have gone the other direction. As it was, we had to resist the urge to buy a few sheep he had for sale and stuff them into the trunk for the ride home.
As regards the cheese, he didn’t have much stock left as they were in the process of lambing and hadn’t made cheese for a while. However, we were able to sample small amounts of feta, gouda, lambert (a mild aged cheese, their base standard), and something called nibblers, which was lambert seasoned with some form of purchased garlic/Italian dressing. The nibblers weren’t our style, but we liked the basic lambert a lot. Rick noted that they had started out making sharper and stronger cheeses, but no one in their area liked or bought them, so they transitioned to milder cheeses (nibblers are their best seller). Today they sell in stores from Arkansas and southern Missouri, direct off the farm, and online.
This was a fascinating, educational, and entertaining visit. They’re off the beaten path, but are very happy to host visitors any time of year. Anyone passing through their area (Competition, MO, southeast of Lebanon) would do well to arrange a tour and buy some cheese. Rick is very friendly, loves to talk and tell stories, and seems to relish company on his otherwise fairly isolated farm. Our deep thanks for his hospitality and willingness to share ideas and experiences.