Jessica and Jeremy Little are second-generation owners of Sweet Grass Dairy, an artisan cheese-making company located in Southwest Georgia. The milk for their cheese is sourced from her family’s fifth-generation dairy farm, which raises barn-free cows grazing on grass 365 days a year. The creamery was started by Jessica’s mom, Desiree Wehner, to better tell the story of their sustainable grazing method and the high-quality milk it produced. Sweet Grass Dairy has since grown into a national brand, available in all 50 states.
I spoke with Jessica to learn more about her personal journey coming back to her roots in Thomasville, Georgia, and what she sees for the future of Sweet Grass Dairy.
Could you just talk a little bit about the history of Sweet Grass and how the company got started?
My parents were actually dairy farmers for many years. My dad’s a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and I grew up on the dairy farm and fell in love with sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry through 4H. So I showed cows growing up and just loved agriculture, but I also knew by the time I graduated high school, I did not want to be a dairy farmer. So I went off to college, studied business, and while I was in school, I got bit by the hospitality bug. I worked in restaurants, and I met my husband, who is now our head cheesemaker.
In the meantime, my mom had this vision of really telling the story of cows on grass. Less than 5% of all the cows in the whole country can be farmed in an intensive grazing management style year-round, and due to our very mild winters and unlimited water, we are able to keep our cows on grass and it gives this milk a really different flavor profile. It was her vision to really tell people the story of this really unique farming method and this regenerative agriculture through cheese.
So I started going around in Atlanta, taking cheese to all these chefs to see if there was even a market for it, and it turned out chefs were really excited about it. Then Jeremy wanted to move to South Georgia to pursue this career path, but we really thought we were only going to be here for a couple of years, to pad his resume, and then he was gonna be this great chef somewhere.
But after just a couple of years, we knew that we were onto something bigger than ourselves, and we really just fell in love with this industry. So in 2005, my parents gave us the opportunity to buy the creamery part of the business. We still source all of the milk from my family. And my brother is now the fifth-generation dairy farmer in our family to continue the tradition. So we hope for opportunities for future generations, although it’s not looking likely right now. But the kids are all too young to really know what they want to do, so you never know.
I mean, I said never. So I’ve learned, never say never. So as soon as my kids are like, “I’ll never move back to Thomasville” I just say “All right, we’ll see. We’ll see about that.”
What was that like to come back and take over your family’s legacy and this vision of showcasing the grass-based milk from your cows?
I think ignorance is bliss. We did not know what we were getting ourselves into. So I was 21 when came back and was not happy to leave Atlanta, this incredibly fun, dynamic, exciting city to come back to our tiny little sleepy town of 20,000 people. But I remember calling my parents when I got my first restaurant job, and I started complaining about my coworkers. Nobody really knew how to work. Nobody was doing the closing checklists and I didn’t understand why they weren’t, and my parents just started laughing.
That made me realize that although I hated growing up and having a summer job from the time I was 10, it really taught me a great work ethic and what it means to be part of a family and chip in. So when we came back, we weren’t afraid of hard work. We were just scrappy. We would drive four hours every other weekend and sell cheese at farmer’s markets in Atlanta because there were no local farmer’s markets for us. And we were just cold calling chefs, asking, “Are you interested in local cheese?” Luckily chefs are very curious by nature, and then once they tasted the cheeses, it wasn’t a super difficult sell.
In the end, I really found that I not only have a love of sustainable agriculture, but I have a love of entrepreneurship and the lifelong quest to learn more. As an entrepreneur, how much are we learning all the time? It is the best opportunity to just learn and grow so much.
Speaking of learning, what would you say has been your biggest lesson that you learned along the way?
There have been many, but I’ll tell you one of our most painful lessons and one that I’m so thankful that we went through even though it was truly a lesson of failure.
I’m an extremely competitive person, and until this point, anything that we had really ventured out to try to do, we were able to. Sweet Grass just grew. Whatever Jeremy wanted to make, we could sell. And I think that we kind of got this false sense of success pretty early, even though it was hard and we were scrappy, we had never really lost.
So we opened a cheese shop that turned into a wine bar in 2010, and then we had so much success with that locally that we really wanted to fulfill this restaurant bug that Jeremy and I both had. So in 2013, we opened a more fine dining restaurant, even though the two restaurants were only a hundred steps from each other in our tiny town of 20,000 people. We really thought we were going to be able to draw in more people and be a destination location.
We hired an amazing chef who was very talented but did not share our same vision of what we were trying to do. He was also not from this region. We did not do a good job of writing the vision and explaining it to our team and sticking to our guns. That restaurant actually went under about a year in.
It was really, really painful to have those life lessons of failure. But when I look back on it, I am so thankful because we learned the power of vision, the power of explaining the why to our whole team, and being true to who we are.
I also learned the value and the investment of time. A restaurant can be extremely time-consuming, and it took away a lot of time with our children, plus we were not really focused on developing the cheese production side of the business. As entrepreneurs, we get to choose how we spend our time, and that restaurant was a money pit and a time pit – a bad investment. It was an incredibly difficult life lesson, but I’m thankful we went through it.
On the flip side, what makes you feel the proudest of what you, Jeremy, and your team are doing?
One thing that does make me really proud is that I think Sweet Grass Dairy has a really unique company culture. We’ve worked really hard at fostering servant leadership and more open-book finance, with lots of transparency to make sure that people know that their work is meaningful and that they have a say in their future. And that everybody matters. I am really proud that we have employees that will stay 7, 8, 10 years employed at Sweet Grass. And that’s not very common anymore.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I hope that my kids will always know that the impact that Jeremy and I have made in this business wasn’t about us. It was a bigger picture. I hope that we make an impact in our industry by really telling the story of family-owned, grass-based, handcrafted cheeses that can come out of our country, a country that doesn’t have a long history of cheesemaking.
I hope that they’re proud of the fact that we never gave up and that we were continuing to innovate, even when it seemed hard. And that we were not afraid to be visionaries and push the boundaries. And I think about my own parents, that my mom very much is a visionary and my dad is a doer. They are such a good combination, and they’re not afraid to make a mistake. I think it has made me a better entrepreneur because I know that it’s not the end of the world and we’re going to make mistakes. So I hope that we can pass that on to our children as well. I find that so many people are afraid to take risks because they’re afraid to fail. And the reality is that we’re all going to fail. It’s how you handle it that matters.
This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
The easiest one is my mom, for sure. She is one of my very favorite human beings on the face of the planet, and if I can be half as great of a mom as she is, then I’ll know that I’m winning in life.
She really is a visionary. She is one of the toughest human beings that I know, and also so kind, and such a big cheerleader, and a soft place to land. But I’ve also learned, do not ask if you don’t really want to know, because she will tell you the truth, whether you’re prepared to hear it or not!
I will also say in our industry alone there are rock stars in the cheese world that are all women. There are some great men cheesemakers as well, but this industry in the United States is built on the shoulders of great women.
It’s been so exciting to have these conversations and to be included at the table on a national level with these incredible women that are now in their fifties, sixties, seventies that want to help the next generations of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds make an impact on this industry. So I could pick up the phone and call Judy Schad [of Capriole Farm] or Allison Hooper [of Vermont Creamery], and they would give us really great feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. In this industry, women have made an incredible impact and I’m so proud of that for sure.
Jessica Little is the co-owner of Sweet Grass Dairy, a family-owned creamery handcrafting cheese in Thomasville, Georgia. Their cheese features the high-quality, grass-based cow’s milk from her family’s fifth-generation barn-free dairy farm. To learn more about Sweet Grass Dairy or to order their cheese, visit their website: SweetGrassDairy.com