Meet the Makers: Jessica & Jeremy Little of Sweet Grass Dairy
, by Hannah Lee Leidy
, by Hannah Lee Leidy
Situated on the Floridian aquifer in Thomasville, Georgia, Sweet Grass Dairy is one of just a few US creameries that produces cheese year round. The temperate weather, abundant water supply, and lush fields allow cows to follow their natural grazing habits throughout the year, unlike other dairy farms in Northern and Midwestern states that halt production during winter months. Not only does this vary the flavor of Sweet Grass Dairy’s cheeses—from woodsy and earthy in the late fall to floral and grassy in the spring—but it also means that the creamery is able to retain staff throughout the year when seasonal operations would otherwise slim down to skeleton crews.
Owners Jessica and Jeremy Little knew nothing about cheesemaking when they joined Jessica’s parents at their newly opened creamery in 2002. Al and Desiree Wehner started the creamery as a way of sharing the high-quality milk that came from their rotational grazing dairy farm with regional consumers. Up until the early 1990s, the Wehners followed a conventional farming method but switched to rotational grazing when they realized cows that ate grass year-round produced a higher-quality, tastier product.
The Littles’ backgrounds were in food and hospitality: Jessica worked in restaurants throughout college while Jeremy gained experience on the culinary side. While visiting the Wehners over the Christmas holidays in 2001, Jeremy and Desiree hatched the idea of the Littles moving to Thomasville to help with the family business. The conversation at the time revolved around accounting and office work, but when the Littles arrived at the creamery, they quickly dove into the business, working with the cows, heavy cleaning, and spearheading the creamery’s sales and marketing efforts.
“Back in 2002, no one around us had heard of artisan or specialty cheese. I spent so much of my time in ‘sales’ as a trainer or teacher, just trying to tell the story about cheeses from around the world,” Jessica says. She traveled to farmers markets, food shows, and events around the country, working hard to grow sales. Sweet Grass Dairy’s collection of tomme, gouda, camembert, and spreadable cheeses received major success in nearby Atlanta, which remains one of the company’s largest markets.
The couple’s involvement with the creamery required learning all elements of the operation. “Everything was brand new. I have been fortunate that [Desiree] let me make mistakes and didn’t fire me,” Jeremy says. Cheese making is a craft that comes with many variables. Without the understanding of how certain variables impact the process, cheese making’s margin for error becomes costly and time consuming. Through baptism by fire, Jeremy says, “I got to know our creamery very well. Owning a cheese business forces you to be a jack of all trades.”
Though the Littles’ foray into the business came with what they call “a steep learning curve,” they bought Sweet Grass Dairy from the Wehner’s in 2005. Under their leadership they started distributing their products to a national market, and by 2010, they opened a brick-and-mortar Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop in historic downtown Thomasville. With both a cheese counter and restaurant space serving cheese boards, small plates, gourmet sandwiches, European wines, and cocktails, the Littles say they “love that the shop is part of the local community.”
They continued to scale their production, too: In 2021, the Littles opened a new creamery to boost capacity and efficiency.
As its origin story suggests, family remains at the core of Sweet Grass Dairy even after 23 years. The Littles raised four sons while helming the creamery’s operations, and their names inspired products like the crumbly Asher Blue and porter-washed Griffin. “My parents are the best kind of mentors and inspirational business leaders,” Jessica says. “My mom has been a great role model for me by showing me how to be an involved mom who prioritizes the kids but also runs a business.”
In turn, Jessica and Jeremy have gotten to mentor employees who have been on the Sweet Grass Dairy team for years. As the business’ growth continues, they’re eager to find ways to invest in their team members’ professional development and bring on more people who are truly passionate about cheesemaking.
“I am so proud to make something that represents the food of the South,” Jessica says. “I am proud that we can continue the tradition of dairy farming in a very competitive and challenging environment. My brother is a fifth-generation family farmer. If we continue to grow the creamery, we can provide the opportunity for the sixth generation to come back and farm if they would like.”