Editor's Note: "The Cheese Artist," which originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, was nominated for a James Beard Distinguished Writing award and will be included in the book
Best Food Writing 2012.
WHAT WOULD A GREAT HORNED OWL WANT WITH A LAMB? Just the brains, really. One will fly in over the flock of dairy sheep and grab a young lamb in its talons, then make like a zombie, and fly away. Eagles eat the whole lamb. So do black bears, wolves, and the primary problem, coyotes.
But to lamb guardian and artisan cheesemaker Mary Falk, co-owner of LoveTree Farmstead in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, the predators that target her prized Trade Lake sheep—the creatures that provide the milk from which she makes her exquisite cheese—aren’t the true danger. The real danger lurks in the cities, where people don’t understand what complex ecology means, where people think you can kill your way to abundance and pleasure. Because if your pleasure is cheese, you should know that Falk makes what many call some of the finest cheese in the United States—maybe even the world. And she does it by nurturing a complex ecology of top predators, gentle grazers, and many much smaller creatures. “The University of Wisconsin sent a guy out here who was doing a predator count in the state,” she says. “He counted ours and said we were crazy.”
The distinctive taste of Mary Falk’s cheese stems from its intimate connection to the land, from clover-eating sheep to a cave that breathes the air of the Wisconsin woods.
Falk doesn’t look crazy. She looks like Jane Fonda playing the role of a farmer who has been out in the sun all day. Her hair is the color of honey, her eyes like a light-green leaf in a sun-dappled forest. She came to the Twin Cities as a radio host, and she has the perfect voice for it, gravelly like Kathleen Turner’s, the kind of voice that makes you lean in to hear more. And when she laughs, her voice broadens and deepens into a welcoming boom. It even does this when she’s telling a rueful tale, like the time she let coyote hunters on her land and they mistakenly took out “the alpha bitch,” disrupting a long-established hierarchy. “She had been running things around here for 10 years, managing two packs of coyotes, keeping them away from the sheep. Once she was gone, all hell broke loose. We went from having perfectly well-behaved coyotes, as those things go, to civil war.”
There are many reasons for the great number of predators on LoveTree Farmstead, where Falk and her husband, Dave, have been raising dairy sheep since 1989. The St. Croix River isn’t far, and it’s a major reserve for great birds such as bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. The land around LoveTree holds eight lakes that act as a water road to the river, attracting all sorts of critters, and there is a string of state forests and wildlife reserves just north of LoveTree. Then there’s the fact that Dave and Mary like predators, insofar as they support the grand balance of nature. That’s why they keep half of their 130 acres as their very own “wildlife refuge.” This gives trumpeter swans, osprey, otters, and several less benign animals free run of the spring-fed ponds and rolling hills covered with lavender clouds of bluestem and yellow sparks of birdsfoot trefoil.
To combat the predators without actually waging full-scale war, Mary has assembled a sort of Dr. Doolittle–style SWAT team of protective animals. There are the lookouts: tall, shaggy llamas who spy predators at the perimeters no matter which way the wind is blowing. If the llamas see something, they let the guard dogs know. Mary’s guard dogs are a special crossbreed of Spanish Ranch Mastiffs, American-bred Italian Maremmas, and Polish Tatras. They are the size of a timber wolf and are fiercely committed to their lambs and ewes, among whom they live 12 months a year. On any given day, these impressive dogs can be seen poking their heads up a few inches above an ocean of wool, like seals in the sea. They can easily take down a coyote, and they can make a wolf think a lamb is more trouble than it’s worth.
The final members of the SWAT team are the border collies, who take on crowd management in the event of an attack, rounding the sheep into a tight flock.
By nature, the LoveTree dairy sheep don’t flock; they eat, outside, year round, making the sweet milk that Mary gathers and turns into cheese. On Saturdays, she sets up shop at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and sells cheese to people who, curiously enough, have no idea that they are buying some of the best-tasting cheese in the world.