SUSTAINABILITY IS SWEET
BIG PICTURE FARM
Talking with Louisa Conrad, co-founder/owner
We didn't go into this thinking, "I would love to be a candy maker." We started with, "What can we do to sustain the farm?"
AT A GLANCE
Business Start Date: 2010
Describe Your Business: We have a small goat dairy and farmstead confectionery in southern Vermont.
What Are You Best Known For: Goat milk caramels. The most popular flavor is Sea Salt and Vanilla, then there’s a three-way tie—Brown Butter Bourbon, Raspberry Rhubarb, and Chai flavors.
Top 3 Business Milestones:
- Winning four gold SOFIs* for the caramels—in 2012, 2015 (two), and 2016
- Running a financially sustainable farm
- Being able to provide employees with a livable wage
What’s Your “Secret Sauce” (Why/How have you achieved success?)
Our goat milk is so delicious. It’s our magical ingredient. We use fresh raw creamy milk from our own herd of happy, healthy free-grazing goats.
(*SOFIs are Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation awards given by the Specialty Food Association.)
What event, experience, or collection of events or experiences compelled you to pursue this business?
In 2008, the economy tanked. We were teachers and [my husband Lucas Farrell and I] had a six-month gap and wanted to do an apprenticeship; we wanted to start our own business. We contacted all of our friends in Vermont on farms; it was an exciting community. We worked at a goat cheese farm and fell in love with the goats.
Did you have any experience starting or running a similar business? What kind of training did you do to prepare?
No. We were both teachers. Lucas’s grandparents had been potato farmers. Lucas was handy with technology and websites. He still handles our website. I went to art school; I handle marketing and design.
We didn’t know much about farms until our apprenticeship, and then we also found information online and went to goat-raising forums.
What was your first step toward making the business a reality?
In 2010, we were living on Peaked Mountain Farm [in Vermont], in exchange for taking care of the sheep and the cheese-making business. We had gotten five goats as a wedding present from all our friends.
We didn’t go into this thinking, “I would love to be a candy maker.” We started with, “What can we do to sustain the farm?"
We were trying to figure out what we could do with goat milk besides cheese; there were so many people making good cheese. We made long lists of what we could make and sell. We tried making other things—cheese, butter, fudge…My brother, who’s a hobbyist candymaker, suggested candy…We made and liked the caramels the best and took it from there. It was also something that we could use our skills as designers and artists to make it into a unique gift package. Big Picture Farm was born.
What was the initial development period like?
We started making the caramels in early 2010. It took us six months to make good caramel, six months of recipe testing every day. (We also had pigs on the farm; they ate our “bad” caramels.) In August, we started going to the local farmers’ market once a week to get feedback. People would tell us if they were too sweet, not sweet enough, too sticky, etc.
When was the first glimmer that you were on to something…and how did you build from there?
In December 2010, we sent an email to family and friends about the caramels, and the response was overwhelming. We went from selling 20 to 30 boxes a week [at about $10/box] at the farmers’ market to selling $1,000 of caramels per day. After six months, Lucas created a super-simple online store for orders. We got an amazing response, and people kept spreading the word.
In 2011, we established the company as an LLC and rented space in a commercial kitchen because the business was growing. In 2012, we bought the farm we were living on, and that’s when the caramel operation moved back to the farm.
We started with the caramels, then added products. We started with different caramel flavors in 2013. It felt natural to play around with iterations. Our first variety pack was after we had four flavors.
We made [and make] test batches of new flavors. We would decide if [each] tasted good, and then sometimes we would send samples in bulk to a few stores to get their response. We prepare 30 to 40 batches before deciding on a final flavor recipe.
We also started making cheese in 2013—we had the extra milk in the summertime. [Although we didn’t start out making cheese,] I love cheese, we have delicious milk, and we have the equipment [included in the 2012 farm purchase]. We sell the cheese much more locally; we have a distributor for the cheese to sell across New England.
We added the tea towels and other products out of whimsy and fun rather than a business strategy.
How did you monetize your work? What was or became your financial strategy?
[For the farm we got grants.] Lucas is our grant writer; he applies for grants given through the state of Vermont [Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets] and by the [United States] Department of Agriculture. We were able to purchase the farm because a bank gave us a loan and the Department of Agriculture guaranteed it.
We figured out that the focus of our business should be selling directly to stores; we don't work with a distributor [for the caramels]. There are thousands and thousands of independent specialty food stores. We keep our shipping rates low. We learned through trial and error that when buyers make small orders every month, they sell far more and then reorder. When the caramels are fresh, they sell better so [our buyers] buy more.
Our firm is so quirky, so we were not looking for investors. We won’t have the “sexy” growth that investors are looking for.
We became profitable a couple of years ago.
Do you have a mentor or consulting team?
My brother, Parker Conrad, who is a technology entrepreneur.
What is the best advice someone has given you?
That came from my brother, Parker, who strongly advised early on that we grow rapidly to get into stores quickly before other caramel makers so we could establish loyalty with the sellers, [which we did].
But we later had to stop listening to that advice because we grew too big. We were working with distributors to get into stores farther away, and at one point, in August of 2013, we were pretty sure we were paying for the caramels to go out the door.
We realized that working with distributors didn’t make sense for our product. By that point, we understood our product (that it’s best when fresh), so it was better for us to ship directly to [more local] sellers. We realized we had to limit our growth and that’s OK.
What has been your company’s best moment so far?
Winning the SOFI Award—gold—in 2012. [SOFIs are Specialty Outstanding Food Awards judged by and given to members of the Specialty Food Association.] We won a gold for best new product in our first year at the Summer Fancy Food Show [in New York]. At that point, we had been selling to ten to 15 stores, and winning the award changed the course of our business. We not only had to increase production but also increase the quality of the product and have even higher standards.
What has been your company’s worst moment so far?
It was also in 2012. With the award and exposure at the Specialty Food Show, we got some crazy [large] orders we weren’t prepared for. We scaled up really quickly. At one point in the fall, we had one big order and we didn’t know if we could finish in time, and if we didn’t, it would kill our business. For weeks, I was getting up at 3 am to make the caramels [all day], and Lucas was working until 3 am to wrap the candies for the workers that were coming in at 10 am to package them.
What’s easier than you thought it would be?
Working with my husband; that’s actually one of the best parts of this. People say to me, “I can’t believe you spend every moment of every day together.” It was harder in the beginning when we would make choices and things would go wrong; then we would have to make more difficult decisions. But we’ve been together since 2003. We got married the month before we moved to the goat farm in Vermont in 2008 and started our apprenticeship. We had worked creatively together before on projects as artists—me as an artist and him as a poet/writer.
With the farm and business, we had to delegate roles. He’s in charge of the accounting, grant writing, and management of the farm and workers. I manage the production of the caramels, marketing, design, and small account sales.
Also, it has been easier than we thought to get noticed by big media. We were featured by The New York Times right before the 2012 holidays and then by Martha Stewart Living magazine in March 2013. Online traffic and sales really spiked up.
What’s harder than you thought it would be?
Dealing with day-to-day problems; being isolated on a hill (although it is beautiful).
What do you hope to achieve from this point forward?
We’re committed to keeping the goat herd size—44 to 45—as is. It’s the right number for fresh pasturing. As our goat ladies get older, we made a commitment to let them live out their lives on the farm. Our next steps are to diversify. We’re now making chocolate-covered truffles. We want to start creating more products not related to milk, like our new linen tea towels [featuring goat illustrations]. We’re also looking at how we can market the farm.
[This profile was edited for clarity.]