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    Counting Sheep and Blessings | Fall 2015 Out Here Magazine

    Greg and Ana Kelly, along with children Everett and Sofia, operate Dayspring Dairy, Alabama’s only sheep dairy.

    Alabama’s only sheep dairy is a family affair

    By Nancy Dorman-Hickson

    Photography by Meg McKinney

     

     

    “Hear that?” Greg Kelly asks as he walks to the back field where his ewes graze. Crunching hickory shells underfoot is the only sound breaking the stillness.

    Exactly,” the farmer says, smiling at the peaceful life he, wife Ana, and their children, Everett, 12, and Sofia, 8, have created in Gallant, Ala.

    Their Dayspring Dairy is the only sheep dairy in the state. The farm’s name illustrates what’s important to them.

    “‘Dayspring’ is a word for Jesus,” Ana explains, referring to the term from Luke 1: 78-79. “It’s about bringing light into darkness. We knew when we came here that our lives would be changed.”

    Greg adds, “We were willing to step out on faith.”

    Set against a backdrop of Chandler Mountain and rolling green pastures, a picturesque pond reflects their flock of wooly sheep. A fancy fowl coop, called the “chicken palace,” houses a brood of Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rock, and Araucanas.

    Two white Great Pyrenees, given cheese-inspired names — Brie and Camembert — guard fowl and flock alike while their penned canine brother, Pec, an Italian Pecorino, is “jailed” until he learns to play less forcibly with the sheep. A trio of cats rounds out the menagerie.

    Each Kelly contributes to the unique family business. Everett milks goats, Sofia prepares labels and pricing for finished packaged products, and Ana expertly concocts a variety of delicious cheeses. Greg tends to sheep, cleaning, and maintenance.

    From City to Country

    The Kellys bought this rural 33 acres in 2011 and, after much research and visits to other dairies, became a licensed sheep dairy in 2013.

    “We were city kids,” Ana says about their former Birmingham suburban lives an hour away.

    Neither had ever farmed. “When Greg came up with this idea, I thought he was absolutely bonkers,” she says. But she had a “heart change” when she realized the toll Greg’s corporate job was taking.

    A trained chef and former test kitchens employee, Ana began freelancing as a food stylist after she had Everett, followed by the adoption of Sofia from Colombia.

    Now they live a more peaceful life as shepherds, tending to a flock of about 100 sheep and embracing natural farming methods. The Kellys never use pesticides or commercial fertilizer on their pastures, and their sheep are not given hormones. That, they believe, makes for healthier cheeses.

    As Ana paddles curds and whey, she’s dressed all in white, including a headscarf and rubber shoes. Visitors wear hair nets and booties. In this pristine production area, Ana makes all kinds of delicious cheese, from fresh sheep cheese “Fresca,” to Feta, to “Ewetopia,” an aged Gouda.

    As she stirs, she explains cheese-making variables, from temperature to chemistry consideration. Each choice determines the cheese’s final form. The process seems as complicated as theoretical physics, yet she’s mastered the task.

    “People said we should get a pig to feed our cheese mistakes,” she says. But failed cheese never happened.

    “I chalk that up to Ana’s culinary background,” says Greg. She studied with cheese makers in Kentucky and Vermont while Greg trained at Sheep Dairy School in Wisconsin.

    In the next room, Sofia is dressed like a mini-me of her mother. When the 8-year-old isn’t doing homework, playing with friends, or participating in church activities, she helps out by sticking labels and pricing on finished packaged products.

    Her brother, Everett, like many American kids, enjoys his “screen time,” solving complicated math problems, and church activities, but he also likes to prepare the sheep for milking.

    Part of their line includes Dulce de Leche, a caramel that Ana grew up with in Brazil.

    Step Into the Parlor

    In a gentler version of the running of the bulls, every afternoon their 55 ewes high-tail it to the milking parlor when Greg calls. The remainder of the flock are lambs, yearlings, and rams. The Kellys plan to eventually have about 100 ewes in production.

    Twelve at a time, the ewes belly up to bowls of food in stalls.

    Everett walks behind the animals, spraying the teats with an iodine solution then squirting the first milk onto fresh brown paper rolled onto the floor. Next he places milking cups on each animal. Meanwhile, Greg cleans tubing and the cooling vat to which the day’s milk gushes through piping.

    Noticeably absent is any hint of aroma in the spotlessly clean parlor.

    Although sheep produce less milk than goats or cows, the Kellys don’t regret their choice.

    “They’re docile,” Greg says. “They don’t smell. It’s hard to deny the appeal.”

    Branching Out

    Greg and Ana have learned much in the first few years of their business. Now, they plan to expand to more markets, particularly with Dulce de Leche, a caramel that Ana grew up with in Brazil that is considered a high-end product and holds potential in different markets.

    “It’s a caramel but with a rich, yummy milkiness,” she explains. “It’s like a milk jam.”

    They’re talking with some major grocery store chains, local distributors, and gift shops.

    “We’re learning about packaging and retail,” Ana says. “It’s kind of like learning a whole other business.”

    Then she laughs and adds, “We tend to do that to ourselves a lot.”

     

    Nancy Dorman-Hickson is a Birmingham, Ala., writer.

    2015 Fall Out Here Magazine Home Page