English teacher turns cheese maker
An earthy smell wafts out from the barn, and with it the light sound of hooves scraping the bottom of the hay-covered stalls. A series of bleating carries in from the outside pen. An old wooden door swings open, revealing the inside of the milking room. With one hand carrying a pale of fresh milk, farmer, cheesemaker and high school teacher Hope Hall strolls out, greeting visitors with a friendly smile and a herd of 21 goats.
Hall and her husband Chris are the owners of Cumberland’s Sunflower Farm Creamery, Nigerian Dwarf Dairy. Sunflower Farm Creamery is the 70th licensed cheese producer in the state. The farm is home to more than 20 goats, but also two potbelly pigs, eight laying chickens, a barn cat and two dogs. To take care of all these animals, the Halls, both teachers, enlist the help of their two daughters. Hope Hall is a teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco, where her husband also teaches.
Every weekday morning, Hall wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and milks the goats at exactly five minutes of 6 a.m. to be sure she has enough time to travel down to Saco for work. After all 11 of the producing goats are milked, Hall takes the milk, which has formed into curd from the night before, and hangs it in cheese cloths for the six hours she is at school. When the school day is over, the goats are milked again and that new milk is pasteurized by adding culture and rennet. The curd hung to drain that morning has turned into cheese and is ready for Hall to add whatever ingredients she chooses.
It is safe to say that Hall gets more accomplished each morning than most people.
On top of her daily farm routine, Hall spends a large portion of her day teaching English courses to high school students at Thornton Academy. In order to have more time to work on the farm, Hall teaches every other day of the school week.
“In some ways it’s made it challenging,” she said. “I teach four classes in a row and I don’t have a prep block anymore. What’s nice about it for me is that the downside of teaching has always been that there’s no time to think. Now, having one day on, one day off allows me to teach and then think about it. I have a chance to reflect on it, where before it was just kind of go, go, go.”
Of her 22 years as an educator, Hall has taught grades six through 12 on Thornton’s campus for 20 years. In addition to teaching English courses, Hall oversees the school’s magazine, “Carpe Diem.”
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I was ever going to be a cheese maker, it was never an option. It was never a lifelong dream. That had always been teaching.”
Though keeping up and trying to expand a farm are difficult tasks, Hall will never let farming stop her from teaching.
“I’m never going to have to farm as a full time job,” Hall said. “So it limits how much you can make, which means there’s no reason to be competitive. If you’re making a relatively small amount, there will always be that market for your product around your neighborhood of local followers, and there’s always room for someone else to do it, too.”
The idea of having a farm began with Hall’s eldest daughter, when she claimed that their family was a group of farm people. Hall decided she could not say no to a girl who deeply wanted to grow up on a farm, and soon the family had a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats and a dozen chickens.
“We had no idea that anything would turn into a business, we just saw them as pets,” Hall said.
Now, Hall has a sizable herd, a group of fresh, delicious products and a promising future ahead of her. The Halls love each member of their herd, not only like pets, but like family, and their small farm has turned into a successful local business.
“I feel so lucky to have two jobs that keep me very busy, but most of the time feel less like work and more like play.”
Products of Sunflower Farm Creamery can be purchased at the farm’s location in Cumberland, where there is a 24/7 self-serve fridge, and depending on the time of year, items are also available at Eventide Specialties in Boothbay Harbor, Walnut Hill Market in North Yarmouth and Sweetser’s Apple Barrel in Cumberland.