Trendsetters: Sweet Grass Dairy
Making cheese by hand is an ancient craft, but this old-world process only caught on in the U.S. about 30 years ago. Thomasville-based Sweet Grass Dairy is a Georgia pioneer in handcrafted cheesemaking, and the business has prompted the rest of the country to take notice of Southern cheeses.
“Making cheese is a highly scientific and artistic process,” says Jessica Little, who owns Sweet Grass Dairy with her husband, Jeremy, the principal cheesemaker. “The people who are making the biggest difference today are focusing on the science – what makes cheese cultures so unique.”
As its name implies, Sweet Grass Dairy’s distinction is its main ingredient – milk from grass-fed cows.
“The original vision and mission was to showcase the high-quality milk difference in cheesemaking,” says Little. “It’s what makes our cheeses special.”
The milk’s quality is the result of the unconventional farming style Al and Desiree Wehner – Jessica’s parents – adopted in 1993. Practiced in New Zealand, this grazing management method focuses on letting dairy cows freely nibble on grass instead of being fed high amounts of grain while being confined in barns. The Wehner cows are moved to fresh pastures every 12 hours, and soil and grass conditions are closely monitored. South Georgia’s climate and natural resources are ideal for this practice, which not only results in better quality milk, but also cows that live longer.
Sweet Grass Dairy was the brainchild of Desiree, who ran it for several years until the Littles bought it in 2005. Since then, the Littles have grown revenue 12 percent to 15 percent annually and increased the number of employees to 45, about half of whom work in their downtown Cheese Shop and full-service restaurant known for its creative take on pub food. At any given time, Sweet Grass Dairy offers six to eight artisanal cheeses that are available locally and shipped to 38 states.
The care that goes into the raw ingredients and the handmade cheeses is evident in the more than 20 American Cheese Society awards Sweet Grass Dairy has received, along with a few international honors. The Littles are in the process of designing and building a new facility so they can increase production while maintaining their hands-on approach. They are also planning to expand the Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop and will continue to partner with like-minded Georgia entrepreneurs to create events that pair their cheeses with wines, beers and jams.
“We would love to be a national brand someday,” Little says, “and we would never have gotten where we are on our own.” She credits the Georgia Mentor-Protégé Connection, a small business development program of the Georgia Education Foundation, and the Georgia Department of Economic Development with guidance and connections to much-needed resources for growth.
Her goal is to continue to spread the word about the superiority of handcrafted cheeses made from the milk of barn-free cows. – Mary Ann DeMuth