Monday, March 8, 2010

I want to be a goat farmer

What do you know about how other people spend their day? Mitchell York gives us great insight into the agricultural experience. I want to be a goat farmer how about you? Mitchell's article give great insight into this "free spirited" life.

By Mitchell York, Guide to Entrepreneurs

These Entrepreneurs Move their Own Cheese
Saturday February 27, 2010

Emily and Michael

I first met Emily Sunderman when we both worked at CMP Media, a publishing company on Long Island, in the 1990s. She was a business analyst and a great person. We both moved on and I hadn't heard of her again until I stumbled upon her online. Wouldn't you know it, she and her husband, Michael Lee, are entrepreneurs. Their cheese-making business, Twig Farm, is based in Cornwall, Vermont. We reconnected and she and Michael were gracious enough to take time away from the goats to answer some questions about their entrepreneurial journey. I told Emily before she answered these questions that, looking at her website, I wanted to be a cheese farmer in Vermont just like her! After our interview, that fantasy hasn't changed. Thanks Emily and Michael, and continued success!

What has been your greatest success as entrepreneurs? And your biggest failure?

Biggest failure first. We tried raising buck kids for the Easter market this Spring--hundreds of hours of labor, lots of purchased feed, and we lost our shirts at the livestock auction. Live and learn. Greatest success is we make a good product that we're proud of and that people need, or at least want, very much.

What advice do you have for would be executive-to-farmer entrepreneurs?

Animals don't take weekends, holidays, or two weeks paid vacation. There aren't very many people who want to work Christmas so you can drive to Auntie's.

When I went to your website, my reaction was, "I wish I was a goat cheese farmer!" It looks so idyllic. What's it really like to be in the cheese-making business in Vermont?

It's a lot of fun doing one shitty job after another-sort of a definition of farming. If you know that to begin with, it makes it all a lot easier. Specifically to the cheese-making side of things, we're part of a friendly community that rarely sees one another. We make a ridiculously small quantity of cheese, and have gotten very good at saying, "We don't have any more cheese to sell you" in lots of very gentle ways.

Why did you get into this business, and what were your goals when you started in 2005?

I don't remember.

How have your outlook and goals evolved since then?

We have a goal to take a family vacation next year.

What's a typical day like?
Michael gets up at 4:45 to set up to milk the goats. By around 5:15 he gone out-this time of year wearing a headlamp as it is dark-to find the goats in the pasture and lead them to the milking parlor. Milking and cleaning up are complete by around 7:30 and then Michael gets the milk into the cheese vat to start warming up. We have breakfast together around 8:00 then chase down shoes for our toddler. Michael drives our three year old son Carter to day care and Emily starts email and telecommuting at her job as a web traffic analyst. The cheese is usually ready to stir when Michael gets back from daycare drop-off and the cheese made is usually in the molds by lunch time. We generally have cheese sandwiches together at noon. After lunch Emily goes back to web traffic and Michael moves fences for the next pasture rotation or some other regular farm chore. Michael sets up milk around 3:30 and is done with afternoon milking and clean up around 5:45. Emily goes to pick up Carter from daycare at 5 and is back around 5:45 and we cook dinner and play at being pirates or firefighters. After dinner the cheese is usually ready to move to the brining process in our walk-in cooler, so Michael moves the process along. We take turns putting Carter to bed, and then read the New Yorker and do email before turning in for the night.

Has the larger economy (oil prices, feed prices etc) affected your business and if so how have you adjusted your strategy?

Yes-feed has doubled in price since we started four years ago. We've raised our prices a little and are now buying milk from other farms as well so we can make bigger batches of cheese.

What do you love most about your business?

No boss!

What do you like least about your business, or hate most, if you feel that way?

It is no fun when an animal gets sick and neither we nor the vet can make them better.

Michael does cheese-making, Emily does marketing and web support. Who does everything else? Do you two do it all?

Emily looks after the bookkeeping and marketing. We have a high school student that helps us on Sunday mornings with packaging cheese for shipment. We also have help with milking on Saturday mornings when Michael sells cheese at farmer's market and on Sunday afternoons so we can have family time. Michael takes care of the animals and makes and ages the cheese, and everything else.

Moving forward,

Jeff Roach (see our new look!)

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