Fat Toad Farm
in Brookfield, Vermont, is known for its farmstead goat's milk caramel. The farm is owned by three partners: Judith Irving, her husband, Steve Reid, and their daughter Calley Hastings. The rest of the team is comprised of daughter Hannah Reid, the farm's marketing specialist; Jenny Hord, the chief of caramel production; Christine Porcaro, sales/marketing director; and Katie Sullivan, who is the milker and also works in the caramel room.
The farm is surrounded by Vermont's Green Mountains. As you drive down the road to the farm, you first see the burgundy house and barn, and then you see the Alpine goats--70 of them.
The business has been growing slowly for nine years, and in just the past two years it has started making tiny profits, according to Irving.
"I never even thought about this as a business. Not even remotely," Irving said. "It was just one step after the other. I think Steve and I are both naturally inclined to be risk-takers and are both very dedicated to work. So that's helpful. Because if you're not risk-takers, this is not where you want to be."
The idea started when Calley graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in sustainable agriculture. Josey Hastings, another daughter, was on a sojourn in Mexico, and both girls wanted the family to raise more of their own food. They always had a big garden, but never had many animals--perhaps some chickens and a pig or two.
Then Steve Reid said, "I've always wanted to milk goats."
So they went to northern Vermont and picked up two goats. Irving said, "We knew nothing about goats; we had no clue about what we were dong. When he was younger, Steve raised sheep for meat, but nothing more than that."
The farm started with those two goats in 2005, and in 2006 the number increased to eight. There was a little stand and a whirlpool bath where the sanitizing and washing were done. Irving and Josey made cheese and caramel sauce in the kitchen. The caramel sauce was Josey's idea; she learned about it in Mexico, where it is called "cajeta."
They were giving both the cheese and caramel sauce away to friends and neighbors until Irving woke up one night and thought, "We're giving this away to about 40 people and we're not licensed." She knew that they had to decide what they were going to do with their "really expensive hobby."
In 2007, they got serious and turned it into a business.
Irving said, "We didn't actually know what we would be doing [in the beginning]." The business had a milking room and a caramel room, which was a combination cheese room and caramel production space. They were licensed and inspected for 20 to 24 goats.
For the first five years, they brought in interns from across the country--recent college graduates who wanted to learn more about agriculture. Each of them would be at the farm for four to six months. In return for working at the farm, they received food, room/board and experience making cheese and caramel and taking care of the animals.
It was a way to get some help, but after those first five years they stopped using interns. Meanwhile, the owners continued trying to figure out exactly what it was they were doing.
Throughout it all, the business was making six kinds of fresh chèvr
e in addition to different flavors of caramel and selling both at the farmers market in Montpelier, Vermont. They originally called their caramel sauce cajeta, but they found they were spending too much time translating and explaining what it was.
"That was a great lesson," Irving said. So they started calling it farmstead caramel sauce.
Vermont stores were selling Fat Toad Farm's cheese and caramel sauce, but there aren't enough people in Vermont to support the business, as the state has many cheesemakers and people don't really need to buy caramel every week.
They expanded outside of Vermont, with Calley taking a (heavy) suitcase of caramel and walking the streets of Brooklyn, New York, asking specialty food stores if they would be interested in the farm's caramel sauce. She did the same thing in Boston. They also attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, which combined with the other efforts, helped grow their market.
Growth was incremental, but it was happening.
Their big break happened in 2010, when someone from Williams-Sonoma called out of the blue and asked for their product after discovering it in a store in New York City. "This was a real learning experience, as they're a big company with a 90-page vendor manual and very specific shipping requirements," Irving noted. "But it has been great, as it's where I learned what I needed to know about freight shipping and all the systems that go with working with larger stores and their vendor portals."
They were prepared when Whole Foods Market approached them. Although Irving started working with their North Atlantic region, the store was also
interested in their product for the Midwest and Southern California/Pacific regions. "They're a great company to work with; they're very supportive of small farms. They take a personal interest in your product and want you to demo it. This is helpful, since we found that until people have tasted our goat's milk caramel, they really don't know what it's about," she said.
As the demand for their caramel increased, there was less time to make cheese. Cheesemaking is a two-day process, and because of the layout of their space, there wasn't room to do both, as the processes had to be kept separate.
Then, in 2012-2013, the team started getting smarter about how they looked at the business. Irving noted Calley's role in this effort. "She asks the hard questions about money," she said. They looked at the amount of time they were spending on cheese and what the return was. "And we didn't truly love making cheese," Irving added. "I remember going for a walk with Calley and both of us saying that we were fine with making fresh chèvre, but if we wanted to branch into soft and hard cheeses, you have to love the chemistry and the process, and we didn't. So in 2012, we stopped making cheese."
The decision to focus had a major impact on the business. They stopped raising pigs, sold a flock of 40 sheep and went from working with interns to being an employee-owned farm. The question they kept coming back to was, "What are we trying to do here?"
Rather than doing everything themselves, they rely on others who are already doing the work instead of duplicating their efforts. For example, they stopped growing a gigantic garden and now trade with their neighbors, who always have excess produce. Instead of raising meat birds, they support their neighbor and buy meat from him. This renewed focus has simplified their lives.
This is important, since the business is based out of their home, which means there's always something going on. All the team members regularly gather around the large kitchen table to brainstorm ideas and make things happen. The business is based around Irving and Reid's family, which is extremely important to both of them.
Irving said, "The fact that they want to be in this area and doing this is incredible. It offers growth challenges in terms of older people learning from younger and younger from older. Sometimes you're not as professional as you might want to be, because the lines can get blurred, but then you correct yourself. Just the fact that we're working in our house--it's a great way to work."
The success of the business is a team effort, and each person brings something to the table.
One example is Fat Toad Farm winning the grand prize of $25,000 in the 2014 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest. One of their neighbors suggested that the farm enter the contest, but Irving didn't have the time, so she asked if anyone else on the team did. Christine, whom Irving describes as a go-getter, said she would do it. She put together a video for the first round, receiving 5,000 votes. When they made it into the top 100, Christine and Hannah wrote and submitted an essay for the contest, and a couple of weeks
later they were informed about the $25,000 award.
The team couldn't be more excited. Irving said, "This award blasts everyone's psyche into a zone of 'miracles can happen.' It helps us feel that maybe we are going to do something here."
That something is to continue to do what they do best: make caramel. Plans for the future include using the resources they have to bring in more income. Fat Toad Farm will also be co-branding with other businesses, developing creative partnerships for other ways to use caramel.
The FedEx award money will be "transformational" for the business, Irving said. It will help them make big improvements in the production room and will allow them to reconfigure time and labor issues, giving Irving and Reid more energy to focus on the bigger picture.
And judging by their hard work and success, they will be ready for it.
Cynthia Tokos is a marketer, writer and documentary photographer. More on her work can be found at cynthiatokos.com.
Photos by Cynthia Tokos.