Sheep keep soil in place at Green Dirt Farm
Military families know the drill. At the end of three or four years in one location, it’s time to pack up the house and move on to another destination. Each move brings new opportunities, people to meet and places to discover.
For Sarah Hoffmann, founder of Green Dirt Farm, Weston, one constant in her life remained the same no matter the location: there was always a family farm to attend to.
“We never lived in on-base housing,” Hoffmann says. “My dad always found a farm to rent or buy just off the base, and everyone in the family pitched in on chores.”
Hoffmann developed a strong work ethic, good family values, a solid business sense and understanding of the land while growing up in various locations around the country. “Growing up on a farm you can’t help but learn things like sales, production and economics,” she says. “You learn naturally from doing all these things on a daily basis. I wanted my children to have this same understanding and appreciation for the farm that I was taught at an early age.”
• Hoffmann family establishes Green Dirt Farm at Weston.
• Erodible land wasn’t suitable for cropping, so the family chose sheep.
• The value-added products the family produces include milk and cheese.
Challenges faced Hoffmann as she and her husband, Dr. John Spertus, tried to spread themselves between their primary occupation in the medical field and their secondary job of farming. She and John, a cardiologist, moved from Washington to the Kansas City area in 1996, looking for a location that had an academic medical center with farms nearby. The ideal spot was Weston, 40 miles northwest of Kansas City, in Platte County.
“Weston provided us with the best of both worlds,” Hoffmann says.
Stocking the land
After three years in Weston working as an academic internist and farmer, Hoffmann gave up her medical career to focus solely on the farm. She apprenticed for two years with an organic farmer after purchasing 25 acres of hilly land that had previously been used to grow tobacco. She had hopes of cultivating the land for vegetables.
“I went to the Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] to research the soils that were on our property,” Hoffmann says. “That’s when I learned that the soil never should have been planted to crops. We couldn’t turn the soil every year, so we looked at other available options.”
After making the decision to raise sheep, Hoffmann set out to determine what to do with her flock on such a small farm. “With my farming background and love of microbiology, owning and operating a sheep dairy seemed like the perfect fit,” she notes.
On the suggestion of Terry Breyfogle, NRCS district conservationist, Hoffmann attended a management-intensive grazing workshop in Linneus and was introduced to area resource conservationist Curt Walker.
With the assistance of NRCS, the Hoffmanns received cost-share to seed 3 acres of their property into native prairie grass. “I wouldn’t have had the first idea how or what to plant without the assistance of the NRCS staff,” she says. After that, they applied for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, to install watering systems and portable fences on their property.
“Since beginning work with Sarah in 2001, NRCS has provided substantial technical assistance for Green Dirt Farm,” Breyfogle says. “We’ve helped to design nutrient management plans as well as a unique waste management system. In addition, we’ve helped Sarah convert her highly erodible land to pastureland, something that has aided tremendously in the conservation of the soil.”
In her first year of operation, 2002, Hoffmann’s dairy consisted of 20 sheep on 15 acres of pastureland. Milking sheep on a small scale, Hoffmann experimented with recipes and learned how to make cheese with small volumes of milk. In 2004, Green Dirt Farm began selling its 100% grass-fed lamb at local farmers markets.
After progressing enough to build a dairy parlor and creamery in 2008, the staff began making cheese on a commercial level. Today, Green Dirt Farm has expanded to 111 acres, with 180 ewes in production.“We milk about 82 sheep,” Hoffmann explains. “Our [flock] doesn’t consist solely of dairy-quality sheep.”
Hoffmann’s husband and three children are all actively involved in the operation of Green Dirt Farm, named for the “green” efforts used to keep both the land and the sheep fertile and healthy.
“My husband helps with the cheese process and also heads out to the farmers markets alongside our children,” Hoffmann says.
“The kids have learned a lot about farming, but they’ve learned a lot about how a business runs, which I think has provided a tremendous hands-on learning experience for them.”
Surveying the pastureland surrounding the milking barn, Hoffmann is pleased with the progress her fledgling operation has made since beginning in 2002.
“I built Green Dirt Farm from the ground up,” Hoffmann says.
“I’ve enjoyed working on the farm, and have thoroughly enjoyed being able to pass along some of the life lessons that I learned on my parents’ farm along to my children.”
Murray is a public affairs specialist for USDA-NRCS, Columbia, Mo.
This article published in the September, 2011 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.