Standing along Winrock Road on top of Petit Jean Mountain is a big red barn, home of the Petit Jean Farmer’s Market and a hub of this small rural community.
Established in 2010, the market is open on Saturdays with a pop-up market the first Saturday of the month. Outside you will see a variety of activities: fundraisers, apple butter festivals, award-winning chili, and artist’s wares. Inside the market are many desirable products from the area including honey, produce, dairy, bread, and meat. There are also art and craft items for sale. In the center of all this activity is the spirited proprietor, Ed Martsolf. By hosting events here, he would like the community to support each other to improve the well-being of them all. His bearded face and humble manner don’t hint at a man who thinks big. On a crisp fall day surrounded by trees with multi-colored leaves, Ed talked about two of his current passions: developing a new haired sheep dairy breed and making homestead cheese.
Originally from western Pennsylvania, Ed moved to Arkansas in 1980. He and his brother maintained the family livestock farm throughout his mother’s life, and his brother still lives there. “It’s been in the family for years. It’s a beautiful place.” Ed purchased land on Petit Jean Mountain in 1990, and in 1992 moved there.
Ed operated the Heifer Project International Learning and Livestock Center in Perryville from 1980-92. The Heifer Project is an organization to end world hunger by providing livestock, seeds, and training for poverty stricken areas. In the first year working there, he was introduced to a type of hair sheep on a trip to Honduras. He said “I was a typical farm boy, and I knew sheep had wool. You’d shear a sheep and make something to wear. I didn’t think beyond that like most people don’t. Katahdin sheep were already there when I arrived. They were put there by the Heifer Project many years before. There was a thriving flock they were using at the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School. I came home pretty motivated to find a source of them, which was in Maine where the animal was invented if you want to call it that.”
The first flock, originated by Michael Piel, was named Katahdin after Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. According to Katahdin Hair Sheep International, “Piel imported the hair sheep from the Virgin Islands in the late 1950s,” said Ed. “The original breed is native to East Africa. The characteristics desirable in Katahdin sheep are fertility factors, growth performance, meat flavor, heat tolerance, parasite resistance, out-of-season breeding, and carcass quality. We bought a few animals from that original stock and brought them to Arkansas” said Ed, “and that led to a whole network of connections.”
The most significant people with similar thinking were at Ohio State University. “They had the only research flock of this type of sheep, besides the original flock in Maine,” Ed said. “One of the professors, Dr. Charles Parker, had done extensive work and found that Katahdin were naturally parasite tolerant. From 1980-85 we utilized the research done at Ohio State, the information on the original flock in Maine, and what we’d learned at the ranch in Arkansas. In 1985 we sat down with the original flock owner, Piel Farm, the original researcher from Ohio State, my father-in-law, a lawyer, and two of us from Heifer Ranch and created, on April Fool’s Day in 1985, the Katahdin Hair Sheep International (KHSI). That was the beginning of the Katahdin hair breed of sheep.”
KHSI assembled 900 foundation animals and created the registry and herd book. “From April 1, 1985, for the next 20 years, that breed of sheep changed the definition of sheep in the United States.,” said Ed. “Up to that point sheep were here primarily for wool even though people weren’t wearing wool.”
KHSI used the North American International Livestock Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, as their main sales room. “Louisville is halfway between here and Pennsylvania,” said Ed. “You can service people between here and western Pennsylvania. So my marketing areas were a crescent from New England to Western Oklahoma. It was strategically located, so that put me in Mom’s house, but it was also good business.”
Hair sheep are now a common animal in sale barns, even in a non-sheep state like Arkansas.
Advantages of the Katahdin sheep are low management. “They don’t have to have a lot of the Shepard’s time,” said Ed. “They’re hardy; they can handle a full variety of forage, gain weight fast, and are a good eating animal. They are livestock. You can milk them, breed them, and eat them. But it was years and years later that anyone thought of commercially milking Katahdin sheep.”
Their primary goal was to change the sheep industry by shifting the focus from a wooly animal to one that had a hair coat that would shed naturally, like a cow or other animals. “Now the sheep in commercial use in the United States are hair sheep. They are not all Katahdin because a few other hair sheep came in behind us and there is competition in hair sheep too, but Katahdin led the way.”
When Ed’s daughter, Jacqueline, came home from college she wanted to learn the family business. Around this time, an increasing number of people were looking for sheep’s milk cheese. All of that cheese came from Spain, France, Germany, or Italy — 97-98 percent of the cheese consumed was made outside the United States. “When she [Jacquline] was a child, we’d pull some sheep’s milk and make tremendous ice cream,” said Ed. “Sheep’s milk is terribly rich. But at that time, we were just messing around.” With the global interest in sheep cheese, though, Ed said it got them thinking “hey, maybe there is something here.”
They also learned that sheep still maintain wild characteristics and only lactate for 60-90 days. “You’re not going to make money if you can only milk for a couple of months,” said Ed.
So they focused on developing the Katahdin breed into a milking sheep. The characteristics they looked for were calm, big-bagged ewes with the same hair sheep qualities of the breed. Ed used a Spanish proverb — “cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow” — to explain that goat milk would provide the right quantity for a family and it is fresh daily and is favorable to children because of the fat particles. A cow would produce too much milk; however, if you skim off the fat and make butter, the skim milk left is useful to all the other animals on a farm. “It took a long time to realize, but after working with sheep’s milk, it became obvious that sheep milk wants to be cheese. It is high-yield, rich, sweet, naturally homogenized, and very high in protein. The goats, the cow, and the sheep make sense if you are trying to run your life in sync with the rest of the animal world.”
The first sale of the new haired-dairy breed sheep took place in 2016. “These animals are the end of a multi-year breeding and cross-breeding effort,” said Ed. The first sale was to Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee.
The Tennessee flock now consists of 450-500 sheep. “My role is not to feed the sheep or milk the sheep, that’s their role,” said Ed. “My role is to manage breeding and manage sales.”
The breeding program is designed to produce rams with a particular genetic makeup. So the rams are kept under Ed’s watch. “I use pretty small numbers, but the sheep you see here are what we carry over after I do all the selling. I put the rams that have those characteristics with these girls (ewes) and then in the spring I have a couple of lambs from them. If one or more is a ram then that’s the group I make selections from.” Selected rams go back to Tennessee for breeding stock. “That is where the milk comes from,” said Ed. “I go get it. Half of the flock belongs to the operators in Tennessee and half are ours. We worry about the ram side, and they worry about the ewe side.”
Sheep sales take time. “You want to have the credentials with having an operation like that,” said Ed. “You can’t fast track. We’ve already logged our seven years. How long to make another sale? Probably two years. In Arkansas, it’s a novelty at best. It’s okay, I don’t mind, but we have hopes that someone will read an article about us and be a candidate.”
The sheep cheese sold at Petit Jean Farmer’s Market goes a long way to come back to the dairy counter for eventual sale. Ewes are milked in Tennessee, the milk is frozen and brought to Arkansas, stored until a specific quantity is gathered, shipped to Ohio where the cheese is made, then shipped back to Arkansas for sale. “We’ve only been playing with it here for three years, so we’re not smart enough yet to make it” said Ed. “We still use an 85-year-old cheese maker to make the sheep’s milk cheese we sell. Ed receives 40 pound packs of frozen sheep’s milk periodically from Tennessee. When he’s accumulated one ton of frozen milk, it’s shipped by refrigerated truck to Heini’s Cheese Chalet in Millersburg, Ohio. “That’s right in the heart of the second largest Amish community in the United States,” said Ed. “That’s where we had to go to find someone with enough skill and interest in dealing with rare milk. When we first started selling it, we just had Heini’s labeled cheese shipped to us. We were new and didn’t have the knowledge to produce our own. We no longer use the Heini logo on the cheese, but they continue to make it.” Ed says that Manchego cheese is the closest in taste to their cheese. “Sheep cheese is expensive,” said Ed. “So we have broken it down into affordable pieces, and we use it as one of two centerpiece artisan cheeses. We sell three-five ounce wedges for $7.00.”
But sheep cheese isn’t the only type of cheese you can find on Petit Jean Mountain. “Our Homestead Cheese is made from local cow’s milk,” said Ed. “I learned to make it from a local Mennonite, Mrs. LeAnna Miller. LeAnna has been making cheese for 38 years, and her husband says it’s perfect. We start with five gallons of milk and end up with one wheel of cheese.” Whey skimmed from the cooking milk during the process is collected and later fed to Ed’s pigs. There is no waste in the process. A wheel of homestead cheese is on sale for $60.00. A wedge sells for $7.00.
Along a small, two-lane road on Petit Jean Mountain, there is a big red barn with much to share: local food products, arts, crafts, and many community events. Visitors may pet sheep, sample cheese, meet their neighbors, enjoy the welcoming atmosphere, and meet the impassioned man at its center, Ed Martsolf.
Find upcoming events at the market on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/PetitJeanFarmersMarket/.