With over 35 national and international awards for their cheeses, Sweet Grass Dairy is leading the way for cheesemakers from the American South. Their commitment to quality milk from barn-free cows, grazing on fresh grass year-round in Thomasville, Georgia, comes through in their range of cheeses from fresh fluffy spreads to aged piquant blues.
Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s co-founder, first met Sweet Grass Dairy’s owners, Jessica and Jeremy Little, over a decade ago and they—and their cheese—have been part of the extended Zingerman’s ecosystem ever since.
How Sweet Grass Dairy Came to Be
Jessica’s dad, Al, is a fourth-generation dairy farmer who grew up outside of Buffalo, New York, on “a very very cold farm.” He got a scholarship to play football at the University of Georgia, and after his first snow-free winter there he declared that he was never going back. Al met Desiree, Jessica’s mom, at school, where they both earned degrees in animal science. They started farming right out of school in the conventional manner they’d been taught, which prioritized maximizing the amount of milk you could get from cows. As Jessica told us about that time in her parents’ lives,
They were just growing a herd and milking Holstein cows, which are the big black and white ones, in freestyle barns. So the cows were standing in these stalls, eating a lot of grain and silage, because the more they consumed, the more milk they could make. A Holstein cow can give you ten gallons of milk per day! They’re Olympic athletes; they’re incredible. But unfortunately, there are some pretty negative sides, the average lifespan of a dairy cow in a conventional system is only two to three lactations. Their level of stress is so high because they’re being asked to do something that cows aren’t supposed to do! They’re supposed to be out in pastures, eating grass, not being pushed so hard.
By the early 1990s, although her parents were winning all kinds of awards and were very successful, they knew the style of farming was not great for the cows, it was not great for them—they were working constantly, milking cows around the clock—and it also wasn’t great for the environment. (A lot of cows in a contained space create a lot of waste.) Desiree felt there had to be a better way to farm cows and signed Al up for a New Zealand Rotational Grazing Conference in 1992. It was a light-bulb moment for him, he returned home from the conference and convinced Desiree that they needed to sell their farm and start over.
They found cheap land in southwest Georgia and soon discovered that the Holsteins they’d brought with them didn’t know how to graze—the ability had been bred out of them—so they switched to Jersey cows. Desiree was amazed at the difference in the flavor of the milk coming from cows that fed on grass versus cows that lived in a barn and found herself wanting to tell the story of sustainable agriculture. Their cows are part of a really holistic cycle of fertilizing and then harvesting the grass, so they don’t have to add any additional fertilizers or pesticides and they don’t have the waste problem. It’s great for the environment and it’s better for the cows; because they aren’t pushed as hard, cows in a rotational grazing system get 13 to 15 lactations.
Desiree started playing around with making cheeses out of their kitchen, in order to highlight the delicious, grass-based milk that their cows were producing. In 2000, she and Al broke ground on a small test kitchen, and Sweet Grass Dairy was born. Desiree and Al quickly realized that they needed help with it though, so they invited Jessica and Jeremy to join the family creamery—the first creamery in Georgia! In the process, Jessica and Jeremy fell in love with cheese and purchased the cheesemaking part of the business in 2005. They’ve continued to grow Sweet Grass Dairy over the years by expanding the distribution of their cheeses nationally, opening a restaurant in downtown Thomasville, and recently moving their operations into a new larger facility. The Littles have received over 35 national and international awards for their cheeses and remained loyal to the vision of cultivating an inspired American food culture. They say they’re telling the story of sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry, and their vehicle is cheese.
One of Sweet Grass Dairy’s flagship cheeses, they’ve won more awards for this cheese than any other, it really put them on the map. (It’s what put them on our radar, too! We’ve been carrying Green Hill for nearly a decade now and it’s also a staple on our catering menu, on Emma’s Remarkable Party To Go platter.) Named for Jessica’s parents’ original New Zealand rotational grazing dairy which they started in 1993, Green Hill is a double-cream cow’s milk cheese with a white bloomy rind. It’s approachable, flavorful, and really rich and creamy. It’s a favorite of Ari’s, who describes it as having “a mellow but still full, creamy flavor. Nicely buttery, perky, earthy.”
How to enjoy it
Jessica also happens to be a certified sommelier and she loves Green Hill with champagne though finds it to be a really wine-friendly cheese in general. (Fun fact: Connor Valone, our Specialty Foods Supervisor, proposed to his wife over a Green Hill and a bottle of Blanc de Blanc—she said yes!) Or, try it with salty mushrooms on crostini, with apricot or fig preserves, or in a baked brie recipe.
This is a raw cow’s milk, uncooked, unpressed, natural rind cheese, named for Sweet Grass Dairy’s hometown of Thomasville, Georgia. A French farmhouse table cheese that Jessica notes, “is about as rustic or ‘old world’ as possible.” It’s actually the first cheese that Jeremy learned how to make, from a cheesemaker from the Pyrenees mountains of France.
How to enjoy it
Jessica and Jeremy’s boys love this cheese in quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, and mac and cheese. It has a subtle yet complex earthy flavor and creamy texture and makes a great addition to any recipe, but can still hold its own on a cheeseboard—try it with tart cherries.
Sweet Grass Dairy actually makes a dozen different types of cheese, including Little Moo, their version of a fresh goat’s milk cheese, but made with cow’s milk, and Asher Blue, a raw milk, natural rind, non-homogenized blue cheese. They also moved into a new facility in May of 2021, and now that they feel like they have their feet underneath them with their new equipment and processes, they’re diving back into product development, so who knows what they’ll come up with next!