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They Dreamed Of Sheep (Farming): Peek Inside An Alabama Dairy

While feasting on a breakfast of hearty grains, the ewes at Dayspring Dairy are milked in two aisles with 12 ewes per aisle. Some have names like "Valentine," "Fuzzy Nibbleton," "July," "Cannonball" and "Latte."
Meg McKinney for NPR
While feasting on a breakfast of hearty grains, the ewes at Dayspring Dairy are milked in two aisles with 12 ewes per aisle. Some have names like "Valentine," "Fuzzy Nibbleton," "July," "Cannonball" and "Latte."

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

Meg McKinney for NPR

The chuga-chuga sound is one any dairyman would want to hear — daily. It's the sound of milking machines collecting the white liquid, which is turned into edible products that support their farm.

For Greg and Ana Kelly, the chuga-chuga sound means fresh milk from their flock of 80 milking ewes – milk to be made into cheeses and caramel at their Gallant, Ala., sheep farm, named Dayspring Dairy.

The Kellys own and operate Alabama's only sheep dairy, with their two children – Everett, 14, and Sofia, 10 — and several part-time employees.

Greg Kelly had wanted a different career than his prior corporate path as an I.T. manager. So he and Ana researched different occupations that could provide an income and a lifestyle better suited to family living.

"Greg wanted a farm and animals," Ana says, "and I wanted to make cheese. You either buy lots of milk, or you raise it."

"We visited a sheep dairy in Knoxville," Ana explains, "and we were rocked. We loved the animals and products, and saw how many products can be made from sheep's milk. Sheep have the richest milk, the most protein, carbs, fat and a high yield."

After visiting several sheep dairies across the U. S., they purchased their 30-acre farm in northeast Alabama in 2010.

They both went to school for a short while. Greg attended a dairy sheep school in Wisconsin. Ana went to a cheese school in Vermont.

Today, they have 80 milking ewes, with lineage from milk-producing sheep breeds — Friesians (French), Awassi (Israeli), and Gulf Coast (USA) – that produce high-quality milk and don't mind Southern summers. Ana Kelly turns the Dayspring Dairy sheep's milk into eight varieties of cheese, including gouda, feta, manchego, Halloumi, ricotta and spreadable "fresca" (fresh) cheeses – Lemon Fig, Basil Peppercorn, Pimento. There is also one cheese the Kellys named "Angry Ram," because it is mixed with hot peppers.

Ana holds degrees in food and nutrition, restaurant management and culinary arts. She was a chef at a five-star restaurant in her 20s, and later became a food stylist for a publishing house and various lifestyle magazines, all headquartered in Birmingham.

On their farm, Greg says he has many jobs – "dairyman, electrician, welder, plumber, frame builder [for the cheese-making plant and barns], obstetrician during lambing season, a confectioner, janitor, geneticist ... ." His list goes on. Here, he whips up some sheep's milk caramel.

But, he's his own boss, and visitors will hear bluegrass music playing in stereo, in the milking parlor, along with the chuga-chuga sounds. During caramel-making stints in the cheese plant, the selected music is from sound tracks and orchestras.

Ana also wears many hats — cheese maker, vendor, overseer of packaging and shipping, marketing and more. "I like to make cheeses that are delicious, practical to produce, and that kids will like," Ana says, and "not stinky cheeses." Ricotta is one of her specialties.

The Dayspring Dairy sheep graze on pastures daily, and that helps their ewes "bring a lot of flavor" to their milk, the Kellys believe.

To an outsider, 80 sheep look alike. To the Kellys, each ewe has her own personality, markings, and "they have to earn a name," Greg tells visitors, when looking over the flock.

During milking, Greg and a part-time employee call out the names, as if they are talking to each sheep – "Valentine, Meg, Horse – she was big when she was born; Fuzzy Nibbleton – she ate anything as a lamb; Easter, July, Edra, Cherry is the mother of Blossom ..."

One yearling ewe is named "Oreo," because she has a white stripe down her nose with an all-black face.

Being the only sheep dairy in the state brings attention and curiosity, but it also means the Kellys have to educate the public about their cheeses and caramel.

They are vendors at festivals in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and at urban markets in Atlanta and Birmingham, home to Alabama's largest market, Pepper Place Market, where they've had a booth for three years. This means getting up at 4 a.m. on Saturdays to get to the market and be set up by 7 a.m., when it opens.

There is a constant stream of visitors to their booth – where Ana, with part-time workers, offers free samples, grills Halloumi, answers questions, describes their cheeses and eating habits of their sheep.

Business is brisk, even on an overcast Saturday. Repeat customers stop by to purchase, chat and sample a new cheese, as do curious first-timers.

The Kellys also sell their caramel to select local retailers and the Birmingham Whole Foods store.

Running a sheep dairy is hard work, but to Greg and Ana, "we feel like we're really living now. We're more connected to our community, we have roots, and this is a better place for us."

Like farmers everywhere, vacations are few and far between. But when the Kellys get a vacation, "we used to dread coming home. Now, we are glad to get home again."

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