Nov 23, 2012

Hard Decisions

We know that this is a long post...but sharing one's heart is not always tidy and compact.  We think you will understand why when you come to the end of this blogpost.

When we began the process to become a licensed goat dairy, our plan was to produce, pasteurize, bottle and sell milk.  It seemed a straightforward process and we were assured of a ready market, it seemed, after all everyone else was making cheese with their goat milk.  Given the well-documented health benefits of goat milk,  it was the obvious choice.  The only other widely available commercially available goat milk was from a large national company that pools milk from many different farms and ultra-high temperature pasteurizes their milk to allow it to remain on store shelves for a long time.  We felt that customers would appreciate the ability to buy milk directly from the farmer, within days of when the milk was actually in the goats.  We know there are many different business models represented in local dairy, but this was to  be ours--milk directly from our farm to your table.

While establishing a customer base for our milk we could not miss the continuous demands for cheese.  We repeatedly directed those asking for cheese to the vendors who were making goat cheese but the requests continued, including from market managers who wanted to meet a demand for cheese at their markets but who were not interested in farms that only produced milk.  We began making cheese to bring to those markets and we quickly realized why so many were only making cheese and not milk.  Milk has a shorter shelf-life.  Milk is harder to transport--100 containers of cheese is infinitely lighter and more compact than 100 jugs of milk!  While milk is essential almost to the point of being a pharmaceutical for some, once the health crisis has passed that customer moves on and while there is always a new first-time customer to discover a great goat cheese, a replacement customer for milk is less predictable.  Cheese provides a buffer against the low production season of Winter in that while Winter milk production is low, butterfat and milk proteins are high, meaning that the cheesemaker can get twice the amount of cheese per gallon of milk that they do in the Spring.  This allows for a great reduction in the income fluctuations seen by the milk-only dairy.  Cheese has a wider appeal and as a "value added product" there are infinite varieties with which to entice a reluctant customer.  Don't like garlic?  Try spicy!  Too spicy?  Try smoky!  Looking for something special for breakfast?  How about Lemon-Blueberry...milk does not offer the same degree of flexibility, nor the enjoyment of the creative outlet of tinkering with flavors.  It also does not offer the opportunity to watch people's knees buckle when they try flavor after flavor of "amazing" cheese.

With all that cheese had going for it we found ourselves facing a difficult challenge over time.  People still wanted milk, our pre-order list was growing every week.   We heard from people regularly who shared the difference that the milk had made in their lives.  Babies beginning to thrive, ulcers healed, increased bone density...we also noticed the undeniable fact that our business was now built on the back of our cheese sales.  We made significantly more money by selling cheese than we could from selling milk or even our other fluid products such as yogurt, kefir and chocolate milk.  Every single week we looked at how much milk we had available to turn into product for market.  Every single week we faced turning away customers who were not looking for cheese, they needed milk for their health.  Our hearts were far more inclined to sell milk, after all, to make only cheese when milk was needed seemed akin to saying "Let them eat cake" to those starving for bread. 

Yet every single week we realized that in order to pay our bills and remain viable as a business, we needed to make more cheese than anything else.  We wanted to provide people with the milk that they needed to feed their babies--but how could we when it was a bad business decision and our babies depended on us to make the farm a successful business?  In order to be able to make the amount of cheese needed to make the farm a success, business-wise, while continuing to meet the demand for goat milk, we clearly needed more milk.

There is a limit to the number of goats that we can own and milk.  It is absolutely essential to us that we are good stewards of the animals that we have on the farm.  We are not willing to add more goats in order to aim for a certain amount of milk; we cannot and will not have more goats than we can reasonably care for.

We can own and milk a finite number of goats. 

We need to make cheese and other value added products in order to be a viable business.

Making value-added products restricts our ability to provide milk to those who need it.

Providing milk restricts our ability to make the value-added products that support our family.

And around and around it goes.

How do we make all of those square pegs fit in the round holes?   How do we make the best decisions?  On what basis should we make these decisions?

And so we have found ourselves standing at a crossroad.  As parents we have to do what we can to provide for our family.  As individuals we cannot turn our backs on those who need something that we can provide.

This has been a very humbling experience.  We have had to admit that perhaps those who avoided selling milk had sound business reasons for having done so--but sound business decisions are of scant comfort when turning away a desperate mother in tears over her baby's need for milk.  We have had to realize that the deep feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have made a difference in that baby's life does not pay the light bill.

 This brings us to a challenge.  How do we reconcile ourselves with the hard truth that our premise of handcrafting products from our own milk is jeopardizing our dream of a productive family farm?

We cannot.  We must either relinquish the premise or relinquish the dream of a family farm.

In considering our situation we have come to the conclusion that we have a hierarchy of obligation to meet.  Our first obligation is to provide for our family.  Our second obligation is to provide quality products to our customers.  Our third level of obligation is to the markets that provide us an avenue to meet our first two higher levels of obligation.  We needed to find a way to meet these obligations without trying to cling to a business model that is providing more challenges than solutions at this point.  We know that there will be those who do not agree with our decisions.  The purists have their ideal of what constitutes "the farmer" as opposed to being simply cheesemakers or prepared food makers.  There may be concern that the different options that we consider causes an unfair business advantage for us in regards to other area cheesemakers.  We can see these viewpoints as we struggled with them in coming to this decision.  In the end we came to the conclusion that each farm represents such a diverse set of circumstances that the concept of an "even playing field" is only an illusion in the first place.  Some may have ideal animal bloodlines but less than ideal equipment.  Some may be incredibly skilled in animal husbandry but struggle in marketing.  There is no such thing as "equal", there are simply different business models that will--must--be individualized to represent the strengths and needs of the farmers.   We will not--ever--be able to satisfy every would-be customer and they must seek the farm that most closely aligns with their specific criteria.  Regardless of what route we take, there will be those who will say that we have lost our convictions.  In the end, the only people who are answerable for how we meet (or fail to meet) our obligations are ourselves.   For us to endeavor to adhere to standards set by others, be they purists, activists, naysayers or critics, is to commit business and relational suicide.

Then we were approached with a proposal that made our struggle more immediate.

Call it a paradigm shift, a change of convictions or a reality check, the fact remains that changes have to be made.  The best way that we can see to be able to continue providing milk to those who need it while providing for the financial stability needed to continue farming is to blend our milk with milk from another local goat dairy for use in our value added products.

This allows us to adhere to our principles that the best milk to drink is from a single farm, within days of bottling.   All milk that you receive from our hands at markets will be from Swede Farm goats.  Our value added product will be from Swede Farm milk blended with milk from a neighboring dairy.

There are several obvious benefits to this plan.  This will allow us to make more milk available to those who need milk directly from the farmer without hampering our ability to sell the value added product that is necessary for the long-term survival of the farm.  It also allows us to support another local goat dairy in our community.

Primarily it allows us the security to continue in farming and we were prepared to accept the compromises in exchange for the benefits of providing for our family, being able to get more Swede Farm milk to customers and supporting local dairying...but there is much, much more.

We will be buying our milk from The International Goat Research Center.  The Center and the Cooperative Agricultural Research Center are at Prairie View A&M University, which is eight miles from our farm.  The center maintains a Grade A goat dairy for the purposes of teaching and study with a goal of advancing "developments that improve socio-economic conditions of clientele locally, nationally and internationally, with emphasis on the historically underserved". In other words, they work to help goat farmers around the world achieve economic and nutritional stability.  We have been involved with them in the past, supplying product for their "Goat Field Day" and welcoming them to tour the farm with visitors that they have to the center from such far flung places as the Ukraine and Wisconsin.  Now we will be involved with them in ways that we find very exciting.  We will be using the milk from their dairy, which allows them to keep the dairy in operation for purposes of teaching and program development and we will be working with them to expand the support and development of small dairies serving their local communities here in the United States.  We have discussed with them the kind of support and education that we desperately needed when we were struggling to adapt both state and federal regulations to a micro-dairy set-up.  We shared how challenging it was to go from having goats for our own family to trying to produce a product that could be sold commercially.  Every week we hear from people across the country who are wanting to do what we have done but who desperately need a road map, a guide to get there.  We hear from sustainably-minded markets and stores about how difficult it is to find locally run dairies that have the product to supply their stores and the stability to remain in business for more than a year or two.  We have a waiting list of people who want local dairy products, especially fluid products such as milk and yogurt but the farms to supply it are lacking.  The frustrating thing for us is that we know of many small farms that would love to produce the product, but the process seems insurmountably overwhelming.  Whether the solution is a goat milk/cheese co-op for those who want to see the benefits of production without the processing and marketing of product; or the development of courses to shepherd the small producer who wants to do everything, as we do, the things being discussed at the center are very exciting.  Buying their milk to blend with ours to make cheese helps us and our customers--being able to work with the center to bring to small producers the help that they need to supply the demand helps so many more.  Communities across the country could potentially benefit and this makes this about so much more than our little farm.  This is a way that we can help make a difference and we are incredibly humbled that God has brought this to our doorstep. 

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

sounds like a great plan- wishing you the best!