Building a brand from scratch takes some time — nearly 30 years for us. Bob knew just enough about balance sheets to get us started. I knew just enough cheesemaking to get us into trouble. It has been one long seminar at the school of hard knocks ever since. I can report that tenacity combined with a stubborn belief in the goodness of our cheese and butter, we are making progress.
From day one, as we envisioned an American market lapping up good French-style butter and delicate little goat cheeses reminiscent of la belle France, we also envisioned a Vermont landscape dotted with goat farms. Small Vermont hill farms once populated with Jersey cows seemed like an ideal opportunity for goat farms. When we started to make goat cheese, there was little or no commercial goats' milk produced in Vermont. We cajoled back yard 4H goat breeders to get licensed to sell their milk to us. Bob and I drove 10 gallon stainless steel cans of milk from Grand Isle to Windsor to St. Johnsbury to Barre to make cheese. Soon the small herds grew out of our pickup truck and drove their own pickup trucks to Barre. Those trucks got too small too and today our bulk truck stops at the 20 or so goat farms and picks up milk from herds ranging in size from 60 goats to 600.
While the demand for goat cheese nationwide has followed a healthy trajectory of growth, the supply of milk lags behind. Not surprisingly, farmers for whom their first love is their animals and perhaps a tour on the tractor baling the family terroir, are burdened with the demands of modern farming. Today all farmers must be good business people, up to the minute with technology and the latest in environmental stewardship. They are Vermont's renaissance men and women, virtuosos in a multi -faceted business model.
Our farmers are passionate about what they do. They are not motivated by money and ego. They care deeply about making good milk for our cheese and doing well by us. They work tirelessly and we are lucky to have them on our team. While the cheese has progressed winning many awards it was not without a deliberate effort to strive for excellence. Excellence does not happen by accident. It is a result of teamwork, creativity, lots of risk taking and having a vision of the future. As we consider our success we feel an innate sense of unfinished business with respect to the farm community that toils to provide us milk. Here too we should strive for excellence in creating a thriving goats' milk industry in Vermont.
Two years ago we turned our attention to the task of creating an enduring long term goats' milk producing region in Vermont. While we have had USDA grants to organize the producers, provide technical assistance through gifts to University of Vermont's Extension, hired staff to work with the farmers, we have struggled to build momentum and attract farmers to this enterprise. The idea of a demonstration farm was suggested by someone other than us. We kind of knew that creating a farm was inevitable and so audacious and undoable that we never uttered the word, "farm". When the Foundation partners suggested it, knowing that we were not alone in this endeavor, we ran with it.
Word got around that Vermont Butter and Cheese suddenly woke up on Monday morning and declared themselves a couple of goat farmers. The experts knew that was a scary image. Rene Deleeuw, a renowned goat expert from New York State called to offer himself up as a farm manager. A new farm built from scratch in Vermont where he could develop superior genetics and organize the animals and labor just the right way was his dream come true. For a guy who has spent 30 years in the business this was an opportunity to prove that dairy goat farming is indeed a viable and rewarding agricultural business. And thus his legacy farm begins. He signed on with us when we had no investors and no farm.
Finding the perfect farm takes more than looking at the real estate listings. If you want to find out about farms and farming, you have to talk to farmers. So we made a point of driving slow into the door yard and talking to the neighbors. Keith Sprague suggested that we talk to Carol and Perry Hodgdon over in Randolph. They were at an age of transition from their haying operation. They sold the Jersey herd about ten years ago. A phone call to Carol in January of 2011 suggesting that we buy their place and install a goat farm put the wheels in motion. The sale of the iconic Hodgdon Farm in Randolph to what would become the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy closed in May of 2012. Learn about how that all happened in my next blog entry called, "rallying the community".
Click HERE to read Part 2, “Rallying the Community.”