Good Shepherd Cheese Kentucky- 50 States of Cheese Cheese Maker’s Spotlight
Some things are just meant to be. Sanford and Colleen Dotson were working in other jobs with one eye on retirement, not knowing really what the other was thinking. Sanford had grown up on a modest hillside farm in Kentucky with his dad bringing in a few bucks as a coal miner. “We grew up on blocks of cheese given out by the government to the poor folk around here. We were scratching a living.” It just so happens both Sanford and Colleen were sensing a need to change their live at exactly the same time. “I think we worried that the other would think the idea was crazy, but after we both discussed it, we realized we both wanted something more rewarding at this stage of our lives. With God’s urging and a lot of discussion, after a year we figured out we wanted to start a sheep farm.”
After quitting work and finding a one hundred and thirty acre farm in the lush hills of Bath County, they were ready to start their new dream. The name, Good Shepherd, has special meaning. “We are doing God’s work and He has provided for us and we want to take care of the land and our family here in Kentucky. We shepherd our new herd of sheep and through hard work we succeed in making an honest living.” With the help of six East Fresian ewes from their friends at Vermont Shepherd, their adventure began.
By following their hearts and their instincts, they also felt a deep connection with their choice of sheep cheese. “We learned about the Pyrenees cheese making techniques that go back thousands of years. We felt a close affinity to the Basque people. We have always felt the same way, isolated out here in the Appalachians from the rest of America. We share that traditional mindset.” They learnt to make small batches by hand in the old-fashioned way, drawing out the flavors of the Kentucky pastures rich in clover and orchard-grass. Sanford also describes his farm as looking a bit like an Irish landscape. With the Scots-Irish forming the backbone of immigration into the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago, the green pastures are another reminder of Sanford’s heritage.
Now the herd has built up to around eighty sheep, with some Lacaune now added. “We are always learning so we have done our best to do one thing and do it well. With practice we have become more consistent with our Pyrenees cheese.” They now have a Pyrenees style straight out of Kentucky, smoked Bourbon style called Old Smokey. To keep the French taste alive, they also have a blend of French herbs called Wild Mountain Thyme. But any sheep milk cheese in Kentucky raised local eyebrows.
“People didn’t really understand our cheeses starting out. We started out at the farmers markets but people didn’t really appreciate the cost involved- our sheep don’t yield much milk. Or people would think it was goats’ milk. We would tell them it was sheep milk but we struggled for a couple of years to win folks over.” Thankfully Good Shepherd Cheese got positive feedback from local restaurants and, with some TV exposure, sales and distribution picked up.
“The Bloomy Rind in Tennessee was a real turning point for our cheese selling down South. They really opened us up to the Southern artisan cheese community.” Their cheeses are now popular in Atlanta and New Orleans and the family work flat out to keep up with demand. Being in Kentucky, the seasons play their part and they only make batches every other day between March and October.
The cheeses develop a natural rind on wooden boards and Sanford is pleased with how their traditional, hand-made style has developed. “We now consistently have that farmstead look to our cheeses that our customers want. We’ve learnt how to adapt and compensate for different lactation cycles and now we are getting better flavors than when we started out.” With new-found confidence, they produced a sheep milk blue cheese- but it was too successful! “We needed to up production but we don’t have the hours in the day.”
So what is the goal for this thriving Kentucky business? “We want to live on the farm and just leave something for our kids. We want to send a positive message to people and be a positive influence. It really is hard work but we’ve never been happier.” And the farm keeps throwing up surprises. “We thought we were done lambing a month ago but we had a little girl this morning.” Sanford and Colleen will need to rely on their three children as they get older. Daughter Jennifer is out there every day moving fences and shepherding their precious herd. Son Josh now owns half the farm and is learning to take over the cheese making role. The future looks bright.
The Dotson family knows about hard work and brick by brick (or sheep by sheep!) have built a wonderful business in the heartland of Kentucky. Check them out online at www.goodshepherdcheese.com or swing by if you are nearby. You will get a warm welcome and some fabulous sheep milk cheese.
Ask A Question Submit a Recipe Visit the Cheese Making Shop