While the symbol of Vermont’s dairy industry has long been the black and white Holstein, the number of goat milk dairies has been growing. Many are producing goat milk cheese, but one has carved out a different niche.
Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell are a young couple with 13 kids.
On a recent summer day, Farrell visited the enclosure where his bleating charges are pastured.
"That’s Becky, that’s MacKenzie, this is Beychevelle and Carmen, and then we have Heloise," he said as pointed to one young goat aftern another.
As Farrell introduces them, he explains that next year, these doelings will join their mothers in the production end of a new manufacturing business that’s turning out an unusual confection: Goat milk caramels.
"It kind of stops people in their tracks when they hear the product’s name", he admits. " It can be a challenge, but it also can work in your favor because it is unique."
Despite the origins of the milk and cream that go into them, the caramels don’t have the strong taste associated with goat cheese. Instead they’re rich and sweet with perhaps just a subtle hint of goat’s milk.
2012 has been a big Year for Farrell and Conrad.
Their caramels won the best confection award at a prestigious Washington, D.C. specialty foods show.
And now they’ve taken the big leap and purchased a farm in the Windham County town of Townshend. They’re calling it Big Picture Farm.
The two 30 year olds are Middlebury grads. Conrad is a photographer and Farrell is a writer. After college they went into teaching, but it was tough.
"The job market in academia at that point was really depressing and we were kind of down on our teaching aspirations," Farrell recalls. " We jumped into this farming thing and became engaged in it manually and physically and I think for us, coming from the world of academia it brought us down to earth and felt really good."
Searching for a way into farming, the couple apprenticed with a cheese maker. That’s how they fell in love with goats.
Then a couple who ran a sheep dairy gave Farrell and Conrad the chance to use their farm to raise their goats. Farrell says it was a golden opportunity because they could start their caramel business without buying expensive equipment.
But when the sheep farmers decided to retire Farrell says he and Conrad had a hard time getting a bank to lend them money to buy the farm.
"It’s funny because you hear this is the best time to buy, interest rates are so low. But to actually land one of those is next to impossible. Especially when you’re a young couple farming, just starting a business," Farrell explains.
Finally, Brattleboro Savings and Loan helped the couple secure a USDA guaranteed loan, which made it possible to buy the farm.
That kind of local financial support has been critical in getting the business started.
Prize money they won in a local business plan competition helped them buy caramel making equipment.
They do their packaging and shipping in a space at a reconverted mill, where the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation offers low rents to businesses.
While Farrell tends to the goats, Conrad oversees the caramel production.
Conrad says the couple was aware of the goat’s milk caramel sauce made by Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, but the idea for a confection came from her brother. It struck the couple as a good way to get into goat farming while avoiding the crowded cheese market.
"One of our goals was we wanted to have a product that we could move and have a larger market, and that had a longer shelf life," Conrad explains.
Until recently, Big Picture Farm was turning out 60,000 caramels a year – all hand wrapped.
But their list of accounts has been growing steadily and recently the meditative process of hand-wrapping has been replaced by the clatter of a 100 year old saltwater taffy wrapping machine.
Such is the price of progress. The switch to mechanized wrapping is timely because Big Picture Farm just landed its biggest customer: The clothing and lifestyle store Anthropologie will be carrying the caramels in more than 140 stores.
In fact, it’s been a while since Farrell and Conrad went out looking for customers; so many have been coming to them that even with four full-time employees, the challenges and chores involved of their growing business fill their days. Conrad recalls messages she recently exchanged one of her old Middlebury professors.
"I emailed her how completely satisfied I was with where things are and that I would really look forward to a moment in our life when we have more time to reflect on what we’re doing and have longer pauses, not working 16 hours a day," says Conrad.
Neither she nor Farrell seem to miss the life of academia and they say they’re still able to express themselves as artists and writers through their farm’s Website and the whimsical packaging that contains their sweet, creamy goat milk caramels.