By Doc Lawrence -
(Thomasville, GA) A family farm would seem to be an unlikely tourism magnet. Far from the large cities of Florida and 200 miles south of Atlanta is Sweet Grass, a family owned dairy that makes cheese. Not your ordinary cheese, mind you, but the kind made over the ages by hand from local milk. Do this well and in today’s fast-growing food centric culture and you attract some mainstream media attention and earn a place for your cheeses on prestigious restaurant menus from South Beach to San Francisco.
Thomasville, just across the Sunshine State’s northern border, is Tallahassee’s good neighbor. They share a television station and many residents commute to nearby Florida State and Florida A & M. Local farmers sell indigenous food products: Tupelo honey, Mayhaw jelly and delicious smoked mullet, an esoteric delicacy.
Thomasville has some of the most admired plantations in America. One provided refuge for Jackie Kennedy shortly after her husband’s assassination. The city has remnants of red brick-paved streets and sidewalk shopping is thriving. A few storefronts up the street from Spencer Young’s Grassroots Coffee shop is Sweet Grass retail store, a facility that showcases the handcrafted cheeses from the nearby dairy and serves remarkably wonderful wines. After 3 p.m., it’s standing room only.
The fame of the retail store is derivative of the high level of national acceptance by gourmet food stores, chefs and food critics of the cheeses produced at Sweet Grass Dairy. Founded by Al and Desiree Wehner, and now owned by their daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and Jeremy Little, the artisinal cheeses early on won acclaim and prestigious awards.
I toured the dairy with a group of food and travel writers and the strictly enforced food safety measures required my donning a surgical mask, gloves and “bootees” to tour the production and storage area. The dairy no longer allows public tours and the devotion to advanced hygiene and health procedures was reassuring, another reminder of the advantages of eating locally produced food. There is comfort in knowing where food originates.
Popular Sweet Grass varieties labeled Thomasville Tomme, Georgia Gouda, Asher Blue, among others are found in the cheese departments of trusted stores like Whole Foods. The Thomasville retail store pairs its cheeses with an impressive selection of wines attracting veteran wine enthusiasts and those who simply enjoy the experience.
Thomasville Tomme is made from Jersey cow’s milk from Jessica’s parent’s Green Hill Dairy in nearby Quitman, Georgia. It’s a layered cheese that when sliced recalls fresh buttermilk or crème friache. Red wine with more than a little backbone will balance out the enjoyment and few are better than Malbec from Argentina or Tannat from Uruguay.
Sweet Grass is more than a highly successful dairy and gourmet cheese maker. It is a testament to the benefits of sustainable agriculture and proof that sustainability can propel prosperity. The land, the livestock and the local economy benefit immeasurably. Out in the countryside, the entrance to the dairy on U.S 19 (the road going north will take you to President Carter’s home in Plains) is marked with a modest sign. In contrast, the store in downtown Thomasville really rocks: a cheerful room, filled with laughter and customers sampling rare cheeses with generous pours of wine and beer.
I count on one hand the places that compare.
Culinary tourism is a growing industry, part of the natural evolution of farm-to-table and local grown food trends. The land triangle formed by Thomasville and its Florida neighbors Tallahassee and Monticello sits on top of the Florida aquifer, the world’s largest. The air is clean, the water pure and the soil fertile. Restaurants like Liam’s in Thomasville, and Tallahassee’s Avenue Eat & Drink and Cypress (each has served me amuse bouche featuring a Sweet Grass cheese) are important components of the culinary adventures here. Sweet Grass represents successful sustainability in full economic bloom, a clarion broadcasting the news of a beneficial and highly productive food system in the Deep South.
According to legend, happy cows produce superior milk. Likewise, good people who love their community and are good stewards of surrounding land are generating lots of excitement with their dairy, handcrafted cheeses and wonderful store, regularly attracting new visitors who like what they see and eat.
(Doc Lawrence is a veteran travel, food, wine and spirits journalist.
Contact him at: editors@ docsnews.com.)