Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connect with farmers, the land, animals & more during co-op farm tour July 11, 2019

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Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.


FARM-FRESH VEGETABLES. Free-range chickens. Fields of flowers. Hand-crafted butter and cheeses. Organic berries.


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


All and much more focus the annual Co-op Farm Tour scheduled for 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. this Saturday, July 13, in the eastern half of southern and central Minnesota into western Wisconsin.


Minnesota Prairie Roots 2016 file photo from Shepherd’s Way Farm.


The event offers the public an opportunity to meet farmers on the land, to tour their farms, to engage in farm activities and learn more about local sources of food (and flowers). The more we know, the better informed to make decisions about food choices. The more we know, the better connection with those who grow, raise, tend, harvest.


Approaching Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.


As someone raised on a 160-acre crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota, I understand and appreciate these farmers. Farming may seem like an idyllic life-style. But I will tell you that it’s hard work being a small-scale farmer. The job is labor and time intensive. Yet, talk to one of these mostly new-generation farmers and you will hear their passion for farming. They are dedicated and market savvy and passionate in a way that inspires.


In the window of Ruf Acres Market, cartons promoting eggs from Graise Farm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I hope you can find time this weekend to visit one or several of the farms on the Co-op Farm Tour. Several are in my area of Minnesota, including Graise Farm, Faribault; T.C. Farm, Dundas; Twin Organics Farm, Northfield; Shepherd’s Way Farms, Nerstrand; Ferndale Farm & Market, Cannon Falls; Hope Creamery, Hope; and Little Big Sky Farm, Henderson.

FYI: Click here for more info on the Co-op Farm Tour.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In rural Nerstrand: Of sheep & cheesemaking July 26, 2016


Approaching Shepherd's Way Farms, rural Nerstrand.

Approaching Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand.

I WAS SMITTEN, simply smitten by the two-day-old lambs at Shepherd’s Way Farms. I wanted to snatch one of the babies from an outdoor pen, tuck it under my arm and scamper to the van.


Shepherd's Way Farms, 111 white lamb


Lucky for the owners of Shepherd’s Way, I am not the rustling type. And lucky for Shepherd’s Way that a hawk, eagle or other predator did not discover these unexpected pasture-born lambs—born out of the regular lambing season.


Shepherd's Way Farms, 151 penned lambs


The lambs, penned under the shade of sprawling oaks, proved a popular attraction during a recent 2106 Eat Local Farm Tour at Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read’s dairy sheep farm near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.


Shepherd's Way Farms, 143 Burr Oak cheese


Shepherd's Way Farms, 173 sheep in pasture


Shepherd's Way Farms, 145 Big Woods Blue Cheese


Here sheep graze pastureland, fueling up to produce milk for award-winning handcrafted artisan cheeses. Farm tour visitors sampled those cheeses which range from creamy Shepherd’s Hope to the denser, firmer Burr Oak to a blue cheese appropriately named Big Woods Blue. I found the cheeses especially flavorful and the softer cheeses exquisitely creamy, traits attributed to the higher fat content of sheep’s milk.

Farm co-owner and cheesemaker Jodi Ohlsen Read talks about Shepherd's Way Farms.

Farm co-owner and cheesemaker Jodi Ohlsen Read talks about Shepherd’s Way Farms.

The tour group heads toward the barn.

The tour group heads toward the barn.

Looking through a window, visitors get a look at the area where the sheep are secured and fed during milking.

Looking through a window, visitors see the area where the sheep are secured and fed during milking.

Again, through a window, visitors view aging cheese wheels.

Through an interior window, visitors can view the cheese.

Jodi led visitors on a tour past the milking barn and cheesemaking and aging rooms. As we followed her along a hallway separating us from the operational area, we learned about cheesemaking from start to finish. She’s the cheesemaker. Oversized windows allowed for viewing. Here, some 240 sheep are milked in a process that takes about four hours from set-up to milking to clean-up. Jodi noted that if you don’t like to clean, then sheep dairy farming/cheesemaking is not for you.

Jodi answers questions once the barn tour is finished.

Jodi answers questions following the barn tour.

It is clear from Jodi’s tour that she loves this rural way of life, this place where she’s raised four sons. Although grown, those young men still occasionally help, this day at the tour and also with marketing the family’s cheeses. Shepherd’s Way cheese sells primarily in the Twin Cities—at farmers’ markets and select grocery stores—but also as distant as Chicago and the East Coast. The farm also has a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Promotional art showcased inside the on-site store.

Promotional art showcased inside the on-site store.

Classes, tastings and tours are also offered at the farm by the well-spoken and knowledgeable cheesemaker who comes from a pre-dairy professional background in writing and editing.


Shepherd's Way Farms, 127 sheep by barn


Listening to Jodi affirms the farm’s mission statement published on its website:

At Shepherd’s Way Farms, we believe there is a way to live that combines hard work, creativity, respect for the land and animals, and a focus on family and friends. We believe the small family-based farm still has a place in our society. Everything we do, everything we make, is in pursuit of this goal.

Shepherd's Way Farms, 150 bottle feeding lamb


I left Shepherd’s Way understanding this family’s passion, appreciative of their hard work and savory cheeses, and still wishing I could snatch a lamb.



Shepherd's Way Farms, 106 silos & barn

This 1940s former dairy barn and the attached lower building have been converted in to a milking parlor, a cheese production room and a cheese aging room.

This is a beautiful old barn. I especially like the character of the entry.

This is a beautiful old barn. I especially like the character of the entry.

Incredible aged oaks tower near the old barn.

Incredible aged oaks tower near the old barn.

There's a second barn on the property, this one moved several miles from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

There’s a second barn on the property, this one moved several miles from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The 120-foot long barn replaces the lamb nursery destroyed in a 2005 arson fire.

This farm cat hides in a wooden box outside the farm shop/tasting room.

This farm cat hides in a wooden box outside the farm shop/tasting room.

Outside the tasting room/store.

Outside the tasting room/store.

FYI: Click here to read my previous post about Simple Harvest Organic Farm, another Nerstrand area farm I visited during the 2016 Eat Local Farm Tour.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hunting for deer at August Schell Brewing Company September 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:54 AM
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August Schell Brewing Company sign and deer by the corporate office.

I MUST ADMIT THAT prior to my recent tour of the August Schell Brewing Company, I had never really thought about the deer image that brands this New Ulm beer.

But, as our tour guide explained, company founder August Schell loved the white-tail buck.

Indeed he did. Everywhere I turned and walked and looked, I saw deer on the Schell’s company grounds. Only the real deer, which typically are visible to the public, were not around because of health issues, or something like that.

All of these deer got me thinking. Maybe the brewery could add a deer “hunt” to its tours as an activity for children and teens. I bet most kids don’t find the tour all that interesting because it’s geared primarily for adults. A deer scavenger-type hunt would provide an entertaining diversion for the younger generation, or for all ages. I saw grandparents with their grandchildren and I’m certain the elders would welcome a cross-generational activity like this.

So here’s my idea: Create a printed sheet of historical facts that lead to various deer on the grounds. For example, one clue might be “Welcome to the Black Forest, a re-creation of August Schell’s homeland.”

A stately buck statue stands on the edge of the wooded area which resembles August Schell's native Black Forest.

Or: Only the Schell’s company president can live here.

A deer image above an exterior door on the Schell's retirement mansion, where only the president may live.

Or: Land a bass when you find this deer.

A Schell's Hobo Band bass drum in the brewery museum.

Game participants would search for the deer, all the while learning about Schell’s and its history. And the brewery would be imprinting the deer brand upon the unsuspecting guests.

Of course, to reward the deer hunters, Schell’s could offer some little deer-stamped trinket to be claimed in the gift shop after the hunt.  (That would increase gift shop traffic, which could also increase sales.) The kids would be happy. The parents and grandparents would be happy.

What do you think? Should Schell’s give my idea a shot?

A deer-branded 150th anniversary beer mug in the gift shop.

A Schell's deer emblem on the door of the house that once was home to brewery workers during the company's early years.

Bottling Schell's deer beer, a museum display.

A successful hunt: Deer antlers form a light in the commons area that links the gift shop and museum on the main floor.

FYI: MANY DEER, a whole herd actually, also can be found in the Schell’s hospitality room. But because that room, where beer is served, remains closed except during the tour or for special occasions, none of those deer are included in my proposed hunt. But if they were, here’s one of the more interesting bucks:

A carved deer light in Schell's hospitality room.

AS A SIDE NOTE, in the book Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota by Doug Hoverson, you’ll find a photo of the original Schell’s family home, today the company office. Look closely at that image on page 35 and you’ll see deer antlers stuck on the front of the brick house, between the front first and second floor windows.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Learn a little history, drink a little beer on the August Schell Brewing Company tour August 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 PM
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Visitors line up for free tap beer or 1919 root beer following a Schell's brewery tour.

“OK, LET’S DRINK some beer,” our tour guide Matt says, pulling six-packs from a walk-in cooler and distributing bottles among tables in the hospitality/tap room of August Schell Brewing Company.

But before we pour and swig, our bartender instructs us to fill our plastic cups only to the black line, meaning we’ll get about 1 ½ ounces of beer per sample.

On this steamy summer day, the beer goes down fast among the adults who’ve just toured this second oldest family brewery in the United States.

The Schell's brewery is celebrating 150 years in business.

Schell’s has been a New Ulm mainstay since 1860, this year celebrating 150 years in the beer business. That fact surfaces repeatedly during the tour and during the beer tasting session when we are served Hopfenmalz, an amber lager style beer selected by popular vote as the company’s 150th anniversary beer. Matt also passes out other Schell’s beers like Hefeweizen, Pils and Dark, which “isn’t heavy in any way,” but earns the name because of its dark color, he says.

Given the “dark” label, I wouldn’t have tried this beer. Our guide is right, though. Schell’s Dark doesn’t taste dark and this is a beer even I’ll drink.

A sip of Hefeweizen, however, causes me to screw up my face and wish I could toss the sample. Instead, I grab another cup, abandoning the beer “with a beautiful balance of cloves and banana flavors.” I prefer bananas in banana bread, not beer, thank you.

That aside, I’ve enjoyed this historic tour of the brewery tucked in the woods along the banks of the Cottonwood River. The site was carefully selected by August Schell, the flour mill machinist turned brew master, for its natural beauty, artesian springs and riverside location.

Schell was recreating his home in Durbach, Germany, our guide says. I don’t ask, but from what I know of this area in the 1860s, few trees grew here, not exactly like the Schwarzwald back in Deutschland. Perhaps that explains why Matt later tells us that Schell brought pines here from the Black Forest.

German words can be found in numerous locations at the brewery, including this welcome sign above the doorway to the house once occupied by the Alfred Marti family. Just don't ask your guide to interpret the German.

He also informs us that caves were hand-dug under the brewery, into the hill and under our feet. We are standing on a paved area between two old brick homes and the original family home, now the current-day corporate office. Beer and ice, harvested from the Cottonwood River, were stored in the caves.

Disappointingly (but understandably), we don’t see any of today’s modern beer-making operation, only Schell’s traditional 1860s brew house, used until 1999. Here we view a hand-hammered copper vessel, Sud Kessel, purchased for $25,000 in 1895. It holds 3,500 gallons of beer, which translates to 38,000 12-ounce bottles or cans. Now that’s a lot of beer.

This is the only peek you'll get of the beer-making process: Schell's vintage Sud Kessel, used from 1895 - 1999.

But you can’t buy any beer at the brewery, our guide says, because it’s against the law to sell it on-grounds. The samples and a 12-ounce glass of beer or Schell’s 1919 root beer come with the $3 tour fee.

Plenty of history also comes with the guided tour and a visit to the company museum.

The Schell's museum is jam-packed with plenty of information, memorabilia and, yes, even beer bottles.

Among the more interesting facts I learned are these:

  • After the death of her husband, Emma Marti ran the brewery for six years until 1940. As our guide emphasizes, for a woman to run a brewery in that time period certainly ranked as unique. Perhaps Schell’s ought to name a beer in Emma’s honor. Or have they?
  • Company bylaws allow only the Schell’s president to live in August Schell’s on-site retirement mansion. Because he wants his privacy, current president Ted Marti lives elsewhere, Matt says. The home was last occupied in the 1990s. (Umm, I wouldn’t mind living in a mansion.)

August Schell's retirement mansion, currently unoccupied.

A close-up shot of the mansion, re-emphasizing the point that I could be happy living here.

  • Schell’s changes its “Snowstorm” beer recipe annually. The reason: “There are no two Minnesota snowstorms alike and therefore we are going to change our ‘Snowstorms’ every year,” Matt tells us, quoting president Marti. Ah, Mr. Marti, you clearly know your Minnesota winters as well as you know your beers.

Another view of the brewery. And, no, I don't know anything about the decorative post and failed to ask our tour guide. I had already asked more questions than anyone on the tour, so...

SCHELL’S WILL HOST a two-day 150th birthday celebration, Schellabration, on September 17 and 18. During that event, you can see areas of the brewery not typically seen on the regular tours.

WHAT’S WITH ALL the white-tailed deer at the brewery? Revisit Minnesota Prairie Roots for the answer and for photos and an idea I have related to those deer.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling