Two doctors launch a sustainable farm in the rolling hills outside Kansas City.
More than a decade ago, Sarah Hoffmann and John Spertus were two medical school graduates with successful burgeoning careers in Seattle. But despite their many accomplishments, the two still hadn’t fulfilled their dreams. From the time they met in San Francisco years earlier, the couple had planned to move to a farm. “Almost from the day we met, I told John I wanted to live on a farm—that I wanted my kids to grow up on a farm,” Sarah says. “He said that sounded good to him, too. He had no idea what he was getting into!”
The daughter of a naval officer who preferred renting farmland to living on base, Sarah grew up with a strong attachment to the land. Fueled in part by the oil crisis of the 1970s, she became a passionate environmentalist. Waiting in those long gas lines “felt almost apocalyptic,” she says. “It was both frightening and kind of exciting thinking about alternatives.”
Sarah majored in chemistry at Bucknell University, served with the Peace Corps in Liberia and entered medical school in San Francisco where she met John, a city guy from Los Angeles. They married and launched careers, but Sarah’s decades-long desire to live close to the land was always in the back of her mind. As John finished his fellowship, the couple began looking for the perfect place to move: Somewhere near an urban center where John could do research, but within 30 miles of fertile farmland. They decided the Kansas City area provided the perfect mix. They moved in 1996. Sarah worked as a part-time physician for several years while tending their three young children, Eliza, Jacob and Daniel. Six years later, drawn by the beauty of rolling bluffs, the couple purchased 25 acres near the Missouri River where Sarah would launch Green Dirt Farm.
Before John, Sarah and their children could move to the farm, they needed a place to live. One morning Sarah heard local architect Jason McLennan, author of The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, talking about green building on the radio. When the show ended, she called him up. “Look, we want to build a house like that,” she said.
Although Sarah had contacted McLennan because he uses responsibly sourced materials to build energy-efficient homes powered by renewable energy, the architect’s first focus in home design is creating a space that suits the way a family wants to live. He asked Sarah about how she and her family wanted to interact with their home. One of the themes that emerged was family togetherness. Sarah and John wanted a space that encouraged their family to spend time together. “I didn’t want our kids off in their bedrooms, apart and isolated,” Sarah says.
To answer that call, McLennan and partner Chris DeVolder designed a large first-floor commons area with an expanse of windows overlooking the farm. An inviting fireplace anchors one end of the room while at the other end a kitchen with a large center island and built-in dining booth encourage communal cooking and family meals. On the interior wall, two niches—one a small study, the other a pillow- and bookshelf-filled “cuddle nook”—offer spots to enjoy a little personal space without losing that sense of connection.
The design works as hoped. “I like the way my family is comfortable with each other,” Sarah says. “The house has a way of keeping everyone centered.”
As they settled on the home’s design, serendipity intervened to provide materials for the structure. As they were planning the house, a huge supply of reclaimed Southern longleaf pine became available from a century-old Kansas City warehouse. The aged wood would become one of the home’s most distinctive features—but also one of its biggest challenges.
Because of the irregular sizes of the antique boards, the wood required special building techniques, and no one working on the project had experience working with the unusual materials. Cutting the timbers to workable size, de-nailing and hammering all took study and patience. Facing wood so dense they couldn’t drive a nail through it, the workers had to learn complex tongue-and-groove connecting techniques to hold their handiwork together. “Everyone was on a steep learning curve,” Sarah says.
Yet all the hard work paid off: The stunning reclaimed timber makes the house sing. Bold sweeps dramatize the ceiling and warm the gray cement floor. End scraps in the kitchen form a unique herringbone floor. Old doors, stained glass and decorative tiles find new purpose throughout the home; recycled bricks frame the firebox. “I think it has a certain timelessness about it, which comes from how it was sited and the materials we chose,” says McLennan, now with Cascadia Green Building Council in Seattle. “It has a feeling of permanence, of stability.”
Although the many reclaimed materials lend the home a historic feel, its energy profile is cutting-edge. The all-electric home uses 70 percent less energy than average for its 2,500-square-foot size. Sited to take advantage of the sun’s warmth in winter and avoid it in summer, the home was designed for reduced energy needs. Compact fluorescent lighting, extra insulation and Energy Star appliances save energy, too.
Most of the electricity the home does require is provided by solar panels and a wind turbine—some days the house produces more energy than it needs, sending excess electricity back to the power grid. A massive masonry heater warms the living quarters long after its fire dies out, and radiant tubes in the concrete floor warm and cool the home. All of the energy-efficient measures combine to create a home that is both comfortable and affordable to maintain. “This home is remarkably comfortable and beautiful,” Sarah says. “It uses natural products, natural wood and metal—the kind of aesthetic that shows off nature at its best.”
Although she enjoyed designing the family home, building an organic farm was the key to Sarah’s dream. But after purchasing the land and beginning work on the home, Sarah realized that, due to its highly erodible soil, the area isn’t suitable for growing vegetables. Not to be deterred, she began researching agricultural alternatives and hit upon the idea of a sheep dairy. It was a perfect fit: Her chemistry skills mesh perfectly with cheese-making—and with just 150 sheep dairies in the United States, her product would be unique. She decided to give it a go and started to acquire her herd, buying a dozen dairy sheep from Wisconsin; a dozen Katahdin sheep, which are known to do well on a grass diet, from a nearby breeder; and a dozen Gulf Coast sheep, which are parasite-resistant, from a farm in Missouri. Today, her herd is a blend of the breeds; perfectly suited to her home and raising preferences.
Although Sarah had grown up on a series of small farms and handled livestock chores, as she began raising her sheep, she discovered there was a heck of a lot she didn’t know. A voracious learner, she dug into the challenge, talking with other farmers, traveling to visit sheep dairies and farmers, and reading. “I read everything I could get my hands on,” she says.
At the same time, Sarah started experimenting with making cheese. Her passion for and expertise in microbiology came in handy—as did growing up around an aunt who ran a gourmet cheese shop. But to make her own cheese, she knew she had to hone her craft. She practiced, read and found people who would let her make cheese with them. She attended a cheese-making class at the University of Wisconsin, attended workshops, joined the American Cheese Society and made cheeses with artisans in the United States and France.
Once she had established a foothold, Sarah teamed up with partner Jacque Smith, the family’s former nanny, to help manage her growing business. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Jacque had trained as an agricultural volunteer, and in that capacity had learned about small farm and community organization. She had decided that organic farming was the lifestyle she wanted, so she joined Sarah in the management of Green Dirt Farm. Today, the women manage the herd and a bustling business selling artisan cheese and lamb directly to the public, as well as to area restaurants and grocers. The farm has expanded to include 150 acres and 200 sheep; in 2011, Green Dirt Farm produced 12,000 pounds of cheese. Bossa, its signature cheese, a semi-soft “stinky” cheese, has garnered national acclaim.
Sarah and Jacque raise chickens to improve soil fertility and keep bees to pollinate the prairie grasses that give the herd’s milk its unique taste. They use sheep manure to fertilize a small garden and orchard. Sarah’s family is involved, too. John helps with the cheese-making and often sells it at area farmer’s markets alongside the couple’s children—who have learned through the dairy not only farming, but also how a business is run.
Sarah’s dream all along has been to make the farm both environmentally and economically sustainable. “I wanted a business, not just a hobby,” she says. “We still have some more growing to do before we reach economic stability, but we hope to get there in the next few years.”
Freelance writer Carol Crupper lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and has fond memories of her grandmother’s farm in rural Nebraska.
Along with the food they provide, what is one of the greatest things about raising sheep?
Sarah: Sheep are the Woody Allens of the livestock world. They are self-centered but have an anxious need to be with other sheep; they are comical without trying to be funny; and they are intensely paranoid about the dangers of the world. That’s what makes them always interesting (but they also make us a little crazy).
What’s always in your fridge?
Yogurt and kefir. Both are wonderful, nutritious, quick energy foods.
It’s 8:00 on a Friday evening. What are you doing?
Sitting on the back porch—ideally with a beer from Boulevard Brewing Company in hand—throwing the ball for our dogs, and watching the fireflies and the dusk come on.
What do you enjoy about living in the Midwest?
We love the people and the culture of the Midwest. Our friends and neighbors here cherish community and working together toward common goals. We also love the adventure of the changing seasons and the exciting, sometimes terrible, weather. Midwesterners have a natural sense of humility because of our close connection to the power of nature, and I believe this is one of the essential features of the Midwestern character. People here have an authentic modesty and ruggedness borne of their recognition that many things in nature are out of human control.
What’s your favorite piece of artwork in your home?
Our stairwell landing (my favorite spot in the house) is filled with the artwork of a dear friend from France who has opened up doors for me to have some of my best cheese-making experiences. His name is Paul Hamot. His paintings are portraits of interesting faces he sees—faces that inspire daydreams and wonder.
Who inspires you?
My father’s sister, Jean, has been one of my greatest inspirations. She quit the nursing profession midcareer and opened a gourmet cheese shop in New Jersey in the late 1970s, when that was quite an unusual thing to do. She introduced me to the world of fabulous cheeses.
To practice working with the unusually sized salvaged wood used to construct the home, the construction and design team decided to first build a barn, combining the historic timbers with a stunning reclaimed stained glass window. Today, the barn is home to Green Dirt Farm’s wildly popular Farm Table Dinners.
Organized and produced by events manager Tony Glamcevski, each dinner highlights a different area chef who creates a menu using seasonal food along with the farm’s handcrafted artisanal cheeses and grass-fed lamb. “The challenge is to be really creative around locally sourced fresh ingredients,” Sarah says.
The meals offer a feast for the senses: Colorful vegetables, fragrant herbs, lamb and cheese are served on long wooden tables where 30 guests sit at mismatched farm chairs in the open-air barn.
As the sun sets on Saturday and Sunday evenings throughout summer, guests sample hors d’oeuvres and seasonal cocktails before gathering around the long harvest table to savor a four-course plated dinner paired with local wines and beers. As the meal progresses, the chef discusses the ingredients used, where they came from, and what inspired each dish.
Tickets for last year’s 15 dinners were gone within a week. An extra event added at the end of the season took just three minutes to sell out. The $130 a person price tag includes food and beverages, fees, taxes and gratuities.
Sarah credits part of the success of her business to being in the right place at the right time. “People are hungry for some real connection to their food,” she says.
Green Dirt Farm
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Jason F. McLennan
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