Sweet success

Sweet success:

With their goats’-milk caramels, Townshend farmers find their niche in the marketplace of locally produced speciality foods

It’s no wonder Big Picture Farm’s silky caramels won the specialty food industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards last year, and the awards keep coming: Pop one in your mouth — savor it — and you’ll understand that this is no ordinary caramel. SOVAL-02.bob.food.big_picture_farm.goats_herd_rocks_luke_1931Handcrafted from goat’s milk on a rugged, hill farm high above the village of Townshend, the super-creamy treats have brought farmers Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell swift success in an enterprise they launched barely three years ago.

Conrad and Farrell met in 2000 at Middlebury College, graduated with bachelor degrees — he in art, she in English — and veered off for grad school: Montana and California, respectively.

They returned to Vermont in 2008 and married in 2010. Farrell found work at Middlebury as an adjunct professor, and Conrad taught art after-school art, but those opportunities dried up with the faltering economy. As Conrad explains, the art market had collapsed.

So they went to work at Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury, making goat cheese.

“We loved the rhythm and life of it there,” Conrad says. And they fell in love with goats. “We knew we wanted [them],” she says.

SOVAL-02.bob.food.big_picture_farm.largebox_caramelsoutside_DSC_5918They soon went to work at Peaked Mountain Farm in Townshend, where they gained more experience with goats and cheese-making, and bought a starter herd of three. Not a big stretch for them, as it turned out, as most of their friends were farming: “Starting new types of farms and doing exciting things in terms of food,” Conrad says.

As the couple’s herd grew, and with so many others’ artisanal cheeses well represented in the marketplace, they looked for something they could make beyond cheese: a gift item that leveraged the best of their artistic skills, and the natural talents of their lovely goats.

It was Conrad who proposed caramels. She’d been inspired by an English toffee she remembered sweetly from childhood. The pair went to work experimenting and taste-testing at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, and unveiled their first product: a creamy sea-salt and bourbon vanilla caramel.

“It took a long time to get it right,” Farrell said.

Well, right is an understatement.

They got it right to the tune of winning the prestigious sofi Award for Outstanding Confection, bestowed by the Specialty Food Association at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

It’s a big deal. Between the Winter Show in San Francisco and the Summer Show in New York City, Specialty Food Association events bring in more than 40,000 attendees from more than 80 countries and regions to see 260,000 innovative specialty food products, such as confections, cheese, coffee, snacks, spices, ethnic, natural, and organic foods.

“It was the Oscars of food,” Conrad says. “We got a big gold trophy.”

And that prize earned them instant recognition among fine-food wholesalers and led to glowing coverage in Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times, among other outlets.

Within three months, business took off. Until then, their caramels were sold in five stores in New York, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard and at The Vermont Country Deli. Now Conrad and Farrell were working day and night to fill orders nationally, with demand rising as the holiday season neared.

And they kept innovating. Conrad addd chai to the palette, using chai from Chai Wallah in Guilford. (A Vermont food product, this is an authentic Indian spiced tea made with organic Fair Trade-certified tea and certified organic spices.)

This, too, landed Big Picture Farm an award: the 2013 Good Food Award in the confection category at a show in San Francisco this January.

While those awards have brought in national attention, it was a more local award that helped set them up: In 2011 Big Picture Farm goat dairy and farmstead confectionary won the BDCC/Strolling of the Heifers award for New Business in the Farm/Food division. That helped them buy 43 acres of Peaked Mountain Farm from Bob and Ann Works. This year Conrad and Farrell bought another 44 acres.

Still another grant, a 2012 USDA value-added producer grant, helped them meet the new demands of marketing — and let them hire several employees needed to tackle milking, wrapping, packaging, and shipping duties.

“The grants gave us a huge boost” on the farm and in the office, Conrad says.

Moreover, they employ three part-timers in Townshend’s former Mary Meyer building. These workers cut, wrap, and package the confections in boxes or bags, and ship the orders far and wide.

The caramels are packaged in gift boxes Conrad designed herself, based on her sketches of the goats that started it all. Small boxes hold 12 caramels and sell for $10; large boxes contain 16 to 18 caramels for $16.99; bags of eight caramels go for $7.49.

Two new flavors have just joined the lineup: maple cream, backed by local maple syrup, and cocoa latte, made with espresso from Mocha Joe’s in Brattleboro.

Central to Big Picture Farm’s growth are the suppliers of the caramels’ delicious, creamy milk: the farm’s first three goats are now part of a bustling herd of 55, fully 24 of which are milkers. Conrad knows them by name, which she’s given them based on different lineages: artist, body of water, high school friends, storybook characters, and bugs.

“[Goats] are extremely expressive creatures,” Farrell says. “They have a wonderful sense of play.”

Conrad agrees: “No matter how hard your day, you look at one of them, and everything is okay. They ground you.”

The goats are moved to different pastures daily from May until November. They like a diverse diet, and to that end Peaked Mountain Farm provides them seasonal grasses, brush, raspberries, pine, and leaves.

“What they’re eating shines through in the milk,” Farrell says. And the benefit extends all the way to the finished product. The goats provide what Conrad describes as “beautiful, raw material” to work with:

“They’re magical animals that produce delicious, creamy milk to transform into something you can share,” she says.

 

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