Ana Kelly never intended to become a sheep farmer and award-winning cheese maker. She and her husband Greg were enjoying successful careers and raising their family. With a Masters Degree in Food and Nutrition from the University of Alabama, and years of cooking experience under her belt, starting at Highlands Bar & Grill, Ana had served as Director of the Culinary Program at Jeff State Community College for 3 years, before joining the Test Kitchen team at Oxmoor House Publishing (“my dream job”). It was at Oxmoor House that she honed her skills to become a top food stylist for cookbooks, national magazines and commercials. Greg was an IT Manager, and everything was going along fine. Then one day the couple had a sort of epiphany, an “alternative calling,” as Ana calls it. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘Do you think this is what we’re supposed to be doing?’”

Photo courtesy of Dayspring Dairy

The two started dreaming. Ana had grown up in Brazil and the Philippines, traveled the world and always loved food, so she had different notions about what was possible in Alabama. Eventually the idea emerged that they could buy a farm, raise sheep and become cheese makers. “We had no farming experience, and no farmers in our family history, but we didn’t care. We decided we against raising cows. They’re too big and too much of a commitment for novice farmers. And we didn’t want to raise goats and make goat cheese either. There were already people doing that in Alabama, and when we spent time with some goats on a goat farm, it just didn’t feel right.” She continues, “As a food stylist, I had fallen in love with the Australian cookbook author and magazine editor Donna Hay. In almost every issue of her magazine, she featured halloumi, a frying cheese made with sheep’s milk. I thought, ‘I love halloumi!’ and told Greg, ‘If we raise sheep, we can make the halloumi on Wednesday and sell it at the market on Saturday!’ That seemed like a practical idea, since other cheeses can take a long time to make and age, and get your money back. So we bought some land and sheep and that’s how Dayspring Dairy started.”

Photo by Meg McKinney | NPR

Nine years later, they don’t really have any regrets. “We’ve had our moments of course, and COVID has been tough,” she says. But unlike lots of cheesemakers, who sell wholesale to restaurants and stores, they mostly sell direct (full price) to customers, at farmers markets like Pepper Place, and another one in Atlanta, and they sell mail order too. “When shops and restaurants started cutting back and closing because of COVID, we were still okay. That’s a good thing, I guess.”

Ana and Greg do everything on the farm at Dayspring Dairy, in Gallant, near Gadsden, with the help of 1 full-time employee and occasional part-timers. They raise the sheep from babies, shear them, milk them, and make a wide variety of cheeses, cheese spreads, jams, preserves and cookies. They produce 15-20 different products right there on the farm. Six years ago, Greg thought they should add something sweet to their product line. “Dulce de leche – caramel – was part of my background growing up,” she said. (Her dad is from Colombia.) “But it was Greg’s idea to make it, and he figured out the production process and worked on the flavors. He gets the credit.” She smiles. “Last year, our Bourbon Caramel won a “Made in the South Award” from Garden & Gun, and that was huge for us. Sales went through the roof. We decided we needed a gift box for it for the holidays, so I came up with the shortbread cookies, which pair really nicely with all three of the caramel flavors and are pretty in the box. Now the cookies sell well on their own too. The cookies are really simple – just 5 ingredients – but people love them. Now we ship our gift boxes all over the country.”

Photo courtesy of Dayspring Dairy

One reason the caramels are so rich and delicious is the milk they’re made with. “Sheep’s milk is the gold standard for cheese making,” Ana explains. “Pecorino, Manchego, Roquefort cheese and Feta are all made with sheep’s milk. Sheep’s milk is higher in protein and fat than goat’s or cow’s milk. A cow will produce 8 gallons of milk a day, but you can only get ¾ gallon a day with a sheep, so it’s really rich. We have around 80 sheep on the farm, and we’re milking around 65. Greg is more hands-on with the animals. That’s where his joy comes from. So he does more of that and I focus more on the cheesemaking.”

Photo by Meg McKinney| NPR

“We started coming to the Market at Pepper Place 6 years ago,” she says. “Right away we realized we needed more products to sell. So we started making spreadable cheeses – ‘frescas.’ We had one flavor. Then we decided to add a second flavor, something classic and southern, so we made a Pimento Cheese Fresca. From there, we just kept adding flavors. I came up with the Basil Peppercorn Fresca because our tent at the market was across from Calvert Farm, and they had all this beautiful fresh basil. The pink peppercorns went perfectly with that because they have such a sweet, floral flavor. Then I developed the Lemon Fig Fresca because I’m huge fan of figs. Of course we live on a farm and have access to such wonderful fresh ingredients. So now we’re making Apple Butter and Fig Butter, preserves. They’re so delicious!”

“As for the cheeses,” she says, “ everyone loves the halloumi. But my favorite cheese to make is probably the Ewetopia, an aged Gouda. It’s my zen. You know the process of turning milk into cheese is almost magical. The average person doesn’t understand how it happens, but it’s kind of a little miracle. That’s my happy place.”

Photo courtesy of Dayspring Dairy

Ana still actively freelances as a food stylist, doing mostly commercial work, and that has helped their family stay afloat financially, particularly during the pandemic. But she and Greg are pretty happy with how their lives have worked out and don’t plan to change. They like running a small, manageable operation, and they love being part of the farmers market community. “At the market, I get to know the other farmers, shop with them and cook for my family. Have you had Penton Farms’ butter peas this year? With fresh cornbread? They are SOOO good. That’s all you need!”

Photo by Meg McKinney | NPR

Dayspring Dairy is at the Walk-Thru Market at Pepper Place this Saturday and most Saturdays, so stop by, say hello and take home as many of their offerings as you can. The cheeses are truly some of the finest you’ll taste anywhere in the US. Stock up on the fruit butters, caramels and cookies too – they’re all shelf-stable and make great hostess gifts (if you don’t eat them first!). And if you’re ever up near their farm in Gallant, give them a call. You might be able to visit, and meet some of the sheep. “Sheep are so friendly,” Ana says. “You just want to give them a hug. And everyone loves the ram,” she said. “He’s our superstar daddy. Very handsome!”