Family goes ‘back to the basics’

Farming and faith go hand in hand for Pleasanton family


by Jessica Langdon
jessica@theleaven.org

PLEASANTON — Sheri Noffke compares calling in the cows for milking at Skyview Farm and Creamery to Santa calling his reindeer. Because just like Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer and the rest, each of the Jersey dairy cows here on the 80-acre farm has a name.

And there’s usually a story behind it.

Gloria was born on Easter. Stormy? She was born during a hailstorm, explained Bill Noffke with a laugh.

Sheri and Bill own and operate a farm and creamery tucked away off a rural road about 50 miles south of Kansas City. They’ve raised a variety of animals on this farm over the years and have offered customers everything from beef to Thanksgiving turkeys to raw milk, which must be purchased at the farm.

And with the addition this year of the creamery, they are now offering customers a variety of cheeses made right here.

Their whole family has been part of the farm effort from the beginning. Their oldest, Rachel, is a junior at Benedictine College in Atchison; son Stephen is a freshman there. And their youngest daughter, 16-year-old Christin, is homeschooled at the family house, right in the middle of it all.

The Noffkes are members of Sacred Heart Parish in Mound City.

And while they seem right at home now on their peaceful farm and in their parish, things didn’t start out this way.

They weren’t farmers by trade, first of all, and they weren’t Catholic.

In fact, it was Bill’s job that first brought them to the community — his job as pastor of an evangelical Protestant church.

Their farm — and their faith — kind of grew in tandem and wound up taking them down a path they might not have expected . . . but wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the beginning

It was August of 1989. Sheri was 29; Bill, 35.

He had been in Kansas City maybe a couple of weeks at the most, a fresh arrival from Wisconsin, where he grew up.

He grew up Catholic, attending Catholic schools through some of college, but the dots never really connected for him, he said.

So he was in Kansas City to be part of a church fellowship.

That summer, he and Sheri found themselves on the same bus for a retreat.

They hit it off and, about six months later, they married.

Bill did some work as a builder and worked in a city weatherization department.

Sheri was a teacher.

So it was a natural transition for her when they started their own family to teach their three kids at home.

They went to a nondenominational Protestant church, and Bill got his master’s in theology.

He eventually accepted a pastor position in the Pleasanton area, heading up a small, evangelical charismatic group.

“We always wanted to have land, you know, a place in the country,” he said. “So we bought this.”

It started as a small farming endeavor.

“We thought, ‘Well, we’ll have a cow, we’ll have a couple of chickens,” said Bill.

“And as we went down that road, how we ended up getting into the Catholic Church kind of coincided with us actually doing the farm as more of a profession,” he explained.

A time to rend, a time to sew

When Bill had been pastor for about three years, a shift came in his church.

“We had a bit of a doctrinal disagreement,” he said. And as in many churches of this type, he said, there was really no way to settle it satisfactorily.

He ultimately felt stepping down was the right thing to do.

“So I did,” he said.

The family then faced the question of what to do next. Would they go back to the nine-to-five world? Or could they make this farming thing work on a larger scale?

“So we decided ‘Let’s give this farm a go,’” said Bill.

The Noffkes already had a couple of cows, some customers and some chickens, so they weren’t really starting from scratch. There was a lot to learn, though.

“We would get the animal,” said Sheri. “We’d buy a book about the animal, then we’d read the book. If we had a problem, we’d reread the book.”

Things just seemed to click. The home schooling schedule worked well with the farming because they could be flexible when they needed to be.

The kids had responsibilities on the farm. Chores and school — and, of course, breaks for family meals — wove themselves into the fabric of their lives.

But movement on the faith front was a bit slower.

After leaving his congregation, Bill began to meet and pray with a small group at the community center. He and a friend spent a lot of time soul-searching, trying to figure out where they belonged.

In his prayers, Bill would say, “This was not the way You designed Your church to be — all fragmented and broken up all over the place.”

The family spent some time in a charismatic Episcopal church, which was sort of a middle ground for them. But the fit still wasn’t right.

“We just knew we weren’t home,” said Bill.

Knowing he and Catholicism hadn’t clicked in his early years made it hard to move toward his childhood faith. But, in the end, move he did.

“Finally it was like . . . ‘This is where we’ve got to go,’” he said. He couldn’t believe it, but it was.

“And so we did.”

“And my kids were just ecstatic about it,” he said. “They still are, and we’ve just loved it.”

The family has always had lots of deep discussions around the dinner table, and Christin believes that it is there that her own conversion took place.

Now Bill and Rachel have the same lively discussions during meals, explained Sheri, but about Catholicism. Bill will ask his daughter a question about religion, and soon one of her professors will send back a book for him.

Although technically Bill really only had to go to confession to become a Catholic in good standing again, he decided instead to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program with his family.

Now he teaches RCIA.

Thriving in faith and farming

The Eucharist was a key reason behind this family’s conversion to Catholicism.

If Bill had to narrow the decision down to one reason, though, it would be the “authority” of the church.

You can really only have unity with authority, he said.

“That was probably the one thing that I couldn’t get away from,” he said.

“No place else did Jesus give them the keys,” he added, referring to Jesus placing the church in Peter’s hands.

And their faith shines through in their farming philosophies.

“You have to trust the Lord,” said Sheri.

It’s the same in any profession, Bill said.

“We’re all human beings that are on a journey, and farmers are just doing their little part,” he said. “You bring all your problems, your issues, you try to walk those through with the Lord.”

As in anything else, it’s not always easy.

“When the weather’s not nice and you don’t feel good and issues hit, you get a little tested, and you have to lean on the Lord,” said Bill.

In their day-to-day farming, the Noffkes try to keep everything as natural as it can be.

The farm isn’t certified organic, but they strive to do everything as organically as possible, right down to what the animals eat.

And the lifestyle has planted in them an appreciation of nature that few Americans have anymore.

Take Christin, for example, who is responsible for the goats.

“I just get a kick out of the animals, watching them grow, watching them because they are so personable some of the time,” said Christin.

“I think we take that for granted sometimes, in that they’re just things,” she added. “But they’re not, really; they’re creatures.”

“You see birth and you see death on a farm,” added Bill. “You see the whole, everything in between. It’s not all pretty and clean. It’s not all just storybook.”

More than business

One December day, Leslie McCullough and her 14-year-old son Clay made the trip south for bottle after bottle of milk.

They have been buying milk from Skyview Farm for close to three years.

“We love it,” said Leslie. There are six kids, ranging in age from 14 to 32, in this family. With several growing boys — Clay is the shortest at about 6 feet 4 inches — they go through a lot of milk.

“It’s almost like drinking a milkshake,” said Clay, of the “real” milk they purchase from the Noffkes.

They also share a Catholic connection with the farm’s operators. The McCulloughs are members of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Wea.

To Leslie, it’s worth the drive. She makes her own yogurt with the milk she buys.

And she takes whole, fresh milk to her 16-year-old son Connor, who has been fighting a brain tumor for the past several months.

“He loves [the milk],” she said, as do all the kids.

“It’s so good for them. It’s got the live enzymes,” she added. “We’ve really been pleased.”

The Noffkes, in turn, are pleased with the happy customers — and with the choices that have led them this far.

“I suppose our type of farming is, in a sense, orthodox, back to basics,” said Bill.

“Sustainable,” added Sheri.

They’re learning from people who did this before them. In that way, their farming and their faith are a lot alike.

“I suppose with our journey back to the Catholic Church, we’re coming back to something orthodox, something conservative, something that we didn’t begin that has been going on for a long time,” said Bill.

Say Cheese!

Not long after the Noffke family got their first cow, Sheri sliced into the idea of making cheese at home.

She made small batches at first.

She took orders for the cheeses that were available — and when she could keep Bill from eating all of it, she laughed.

There was never as much as she would have liked.

All of that changed this year — with the addition of the brand-new creamery at Skyview Farm and Creamery.

“I like to cut out the middle man,” said Sheri, so she loves the way the layout takes milk from cow to refrigeration in a hurry. She also savors the opportunity to create a wide variety of cheeses.

It all begins in the pastures, where the cows are encouraged to graze on good grass. To keep the milk supply going, they’re on a schedule of having one calf a year.

When it’s time for milking, they’re called inside by name. A couple can be milked at one time.

Goats are milked in this same room.

While goats’ milk goes into a bucket and then into a refrigeration system, the setup for cows’ milk is a little more complex.

A machine vacuums the milk through a piping system through the wall into the next room, where the milk pours into a bulk vat to be chilled quickly.

On the days they make cheese — generally once a week — milk is vacuumed into yet another room, into the cheese vat, an 80-gallon metal container.

They heat the milk and add the culture, which has to ripen. The time that takes varies by the type of cheese they’re making.

Then they add the rennet, which causes the cheese to separate into curds.

They put the cutters through it, and the whey is drained.

“We put the cheesecloth in here,” said Sheri, holding a round mold. “Curds go in, cover it up.”

And then it’s time to press it. She takes the mold over to a stainless steel table.

If the cheeses aren’t pre-salted, brining comes next.

And then they go into the cheese “cave” down below.

By law, cheeses have to age for at least 60 days, but they can age longer than that.

“If you don’t sell it right away, it only gets better,” Sheri said.

The oak shelves are lined several feet high with wheels of cheese — everything from gouda to Swiss to asiago to jalapeño cheddar and more.

Sheri’s favorite is the gouda.

Each week, they’ll add seven or eight wheels to the mix. They’ll make the cheeses that are “due” — aged to the right date — available for purchase.

They started this operation in August, so the first cheeses weren’t available for eating until October.

They’ve learned a lot about this process from other cheese makers online. People have been willing to share what worked well and what they would have done differently.

Sheri hopes to one day have the cave filled with shelves.

“It’s time for Bill to build another shelf,” she said with a smile.

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