September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Instead Steven Read and his wife, Jodi Ohlsen Read, along with their four sons - Aidan (20), Elia (16), Isaiah (15) and Maitias (13) - have spent the last seven years rebuilding their dairy and their way of life.
Flames take much, but not all
Shepherd's Way Farm, a sheep dairy, came into existence in 1994, when Steven and Jodi added farming to their full time jobs in the Twin Cities - Jodi was a writer and editor and Steven was a teacher - and purchased a flock of East Friesian sheep.
"We were living in rural Carver County at the time. We had one boy already and one on the way," Jodi Ohlsen Read said. "We wanted to create a different lifestyle, one where we could work together and family was the center of our world."
For the first few years, the Reads focused on building their flock, selling their fluid milk through the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. In 2001, they relocated to Nerstrand, Minn., where they began processing their sheep milk and making cheese on their farm. Demand for their products took off, and before long they were distributing nationally.
"We had one of the top sheep dairies in the nation," Ohlsen Read said.
Then, devastation hit when an arson fire swept through their farm in January 2005. Their entire crop of lambs, around 300 ewes and their new animal housing were lost. What was left was a damaged machine shed, the milking parlor, the cheese production plant and their home.
What the fire didn't take was the Read family's will to dairy and produce nutritious products for others to enjoy.
A long, slow process
For the last seven years, the Reads have been working to rebuild their dairy to its former glory.
"It takes a long time," Ohlsen Read said. "[Dairy sheep] is such a small industry that you can't just go out and buy another flock easily. To have to start over is a big loss even if you have only a small number of animals."
The Reads continued to milk their remaining ewes through November 2005, using that milk to produce cheese. After that, they used milk they had frozen until that, too, was gone. Then, using small quantities of purchased milk, they focused on producing a limited quantity of cheeses primarily for the Minnesota marketplace.
For the next couple of years, Ohlsen Read said, they held a bare minimum existence, all the while searching for creative ways in which they could come up with the money needed to rebuild. One of those ways was through starting a cheese CSA (community supported agriculture). Through the CSA, members pre-pay six months or a year and receive a monthly allotment of cheese. By doing this, the Reads were able to purchase sheep milk from other producers to make cheese.
Their second creative strategy was by starting a slow-money investment vehicle, which they now call Farm Haven. Through this, interested supporters can place a minimum amount of money in the LLC, which is then lent back to the Reads. Investors are paid back over time but never actually own a share in the farm.
"It was an innovative way of raising money ... so we could repair and start rebuilding," Ohlsen Read said. "Everybody who's involved is supportive of local food and sustainable agriculture. They all know what they are investing in."
This strategy has allowed the Reads to increase production and begin repairing what was left on their farm as well as bring in a new building. A few years ago, they moved the top half of a 120-foot 1930s dairy barn from Big Woods State Park to their farm. They just recently placed that barn on a new cement block foundation. It will be used to house ewes and lambs, and as the flock grows, it will become the lambing barn.
Shepherd's Way Farm is now back in full production, with Ohlsen Read regularly making five varieties of cheese, which are again being distributed nationally. When they resume milking their own flock, Ohlsen Read said they will continue purchasing milk from other producers as well, as a way to support a small industry and other shepherds. They have also diversified their farm, adding a heritage breed of pigs (Large Blacks) and a heritage breed of chickens (Buckeyes). They also have expanded their CSA and added farmers markets to their repertoire.
Ohlsen Read said she is looking forward to doing what her family has worked so hard to keep doing.
"People asked us why we didn't quit. This is what we really want to do. It's our home, our work, and it's what we do," Ohlsen Read said. "... It's been a long haul, but it's definitely been worth it."