The Early Years
Despite its recent arrival, Sweet Grass Dairy's roots stretch back for generations.
The Wehner family has been dairy farmers in Western New York since immigrating from Germany. When he left home for the University of Georgia in the early 1970s, Al Wehner didn't imagine he'd continue that tradition. A winter free of blizzards and ice storms began to change his mind. After meeting his future wife, Desiree, his move south became permanent.
For nearly 20 years, the Wehners followed the familiar path of conventional dairy farmers.
They ran a farm with more than a thousand of cows, milked three times a day, made silage, and normally had to cull at least 30 percent of their herd every year. Often, due to the demands of farm work, there was so much employee turnover from season to season they would issue 100 to 200 W-2 forms in a single year.
By the early 1990s, the 80-hour work weeks and years without an adequate vacation were piling up. A seemingly innocuous seminar at a conference in Wisconsin changed their lives.
The Wehners Chart a New Course
It seemed like a simple concept, New Zealand-style rotational grazing.
This system emphasizes a style of grazing where herds are regularly and strategically moved from one pasture to another within a 24-hour time frame. Additionally, rotational grazing relies on irrigation systems that provide a continual water source. This combination maximizes the quality and quantity of each paddock while providing an even amount of grazing throughout the pastures so both the farm and the animals remain in peak health.
Making these changes required the Wehners' to re-invent every piece of their operation.
Resisting the "bigger is better" mantra that dominated the U.S. agricultural landscape, they downsized their herd, purchased irrigation equipment, took their cows out of the concrete barns, and placed them on lush Georgia pasture for upwards of 22 hours a day.
Their new philosophy boiled down to letting "cow be cows." What seemed like common sense to the Wehners, mystified many. Peers predicted openly that they'd be out of business within a year. Nearly two decades later, the Wehners are still going strong.
Sweet Grass Dairy is Founded
Call them dreamers. Call them crazy. But, don't call them easily satisfied. As the last of their three kids prepared to leave home, Al and Desiree went in search of a new challenge.
Desiree found one in California.
After enrolling in a cheese-making class at Cal Poly University, she fell in love with goat cheese. Desiree returned to Georgia with a new mission.
For an entire year, she made cheese nearly every day. Her creations filled a row of aging refrigerators lining the family's back porch. When friends or family visited, Desiree's two high-school age sons begged friends and family to take armfuls of cheese home with them.
Desiree's vision and unwavering commitment led to the founding of Sweet Grass Dairy in 2000. Its mission to show people a better way to make food began with a herd of 11 dairy goats and grass-based jersey cow's milk from the family's own herd.
It didn't take long before cheese lovers across the nation took notice.
Sweet Grass Dairy Begins To Take Off
After just two years, with demand exploding, the Wehners knew they needed help. They turned to their daughter Jessica and their newly minted son-in-law, Jeremy Little.
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio Jeremy never thought he'd end up south of the Mason-Dixon line. A life-long South Georgian, Jessica never saw herself staying close to home. He wanted to be a chef. She was looking forward to a career in marketing. Both believed that big city lights were beckoning.
A casual conversation over a holiday dinner, transformed their thinking.
Realizing that something special was taking root in Thomasville, within two weeks of their chat, Jeremy and Jessica returned to Thomasville for good. She managed sales and marketing while he took over learning how to run the day-to-day cheese-making operation.
Cheeses quickly went from selling out of local markets to flying off retailers' shelves across the Southeast. Chefs from all over Florida and Georgia featured the cheeses on their menus. The newly formed team ramped up production and started a small-size distribution business.
The Littles Take The Reins
In 2005, the Littles purchased Sweet Grass Dairy and began writing their own story.
Since the Littles took over, Sweet Grass Dairy has doubled its production, expanded its cheese-making operation, been featured in countless cook books, added an off-site retail store, and pushed its distribution business into almost 40 states.
Despite the success, the Littles know that Sweet Grass Dairy's success now, and in the future, is owed to its humble beginnings - 11 goats and a commitment to a better way.
This isn't a cookie-cutter corporation.
No one makes sure we are wearing the right color socks. There is not a required amount of "flair." The boss's desk is next to a work sink. Meetings are often held around a platter of meat and cheese. We're not big believers in fancy titles, the Owners are just as likely to spend an afternoon packing boxes as our packing specialists are.
We are: Part romantic. Part practical. Part brazen. Part prudent. Part old world. Part young turk. Part country. Part rock and roll.
Above all, we are completely committed.
*Staff profiles are coming soon.
You are who your friends are
That's why we only partner with people who understand our mission, appreciate our vision and follow similar philosophies. We work hard to find retailers, restaurants, and outlets that treat cheese with the same passion and respect we do. We labor to find enthusiastic, gifted people who are applying the same principles to another venture whether that's curing meat, making chocolate, pickling okra, or brewing beer. For us, joining forces with another producer goes beyond an endorsement it represents a seal of approval. That is not something we take lightly.