April 12, 2012

Entrepreneur Spotlight – Fat Toad Farm

Fat Toad Farm Goat DairyWhat could be sweeter than starting off this morning with some pictures of some very cute and curious goats?  How about an article about a family of farmers who lovingly care for these goats and how they’ve created one of the most sought-after artisan goat milk caramel products in the country.

It’s worth noting that Hannah Reid and I tried to connect several times but she had trouble finding time to sit down because, as she said “the goats just won’t let me alone!”  How many of you wish you could say that?  Fat Toad Farm is a true working family-farm located in Vermont and as Hannah points out, farming is not for the weak.  That being said, she and her family have created a brand that has high-end retailers across the country clammering to get it into their stores.  Best of all, Fat Toad Farm manages to do all of this while staying focused on their stewardship of the earth and a comimtment to building a strong and sustainable community.

How did Fat Toad Farm get it’s start?

Fat Toad Farm started out as a simple experiment in homesteading.  We wanted to test how self-sufficient we could be living off our own land, growing and preserving vegetables, planting orchards, raising our own animals for meat and bartering with neighbors for goods.  Things started to get out of hand when we bought a couple of goats to add a source of dairy to our homesteading experiment.  Then Josey, the oldest daughter, came home after several years living on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico with recipes for Cajeta or Goat’s Milk Caramel. The rest is history!

How many goats now call Fat Toad Farm home? 

We currently have 56 milking does living in our greenhouse barn, at the moment (2/13/12) they are all very pregnant and we are scrambling to get prepared for kidding season starting March 2st.  We also have two bucks who live on the other side of the hill, their names are Thunder and Obe.

Along similar lines, Fat Toad Farm really is a family farm – can you introduce us to some of the people who work there?

Fat Toad Farm was started in 2008 by my dad, Steve Reid, my step-mom Judith Irving and my step-sisters Calley and Josey Hastings.  (Lot’s of different last names, but our blended family has called the farmhouse home for nearly 20 years.) My dad, Steve, was the original goat enthusiast. On particularly long, hard days on the farm we enjoy blaming him for getting us all in this mess. To be totally honest, everyone does everything around here, but I suppose we all have areas of expertise.  Steve is the herd manager, lead milker, and our finance guru.  My step-mom Judith is the caramel and cheese maven, and in charge of all orders and shipping and handling. I joined the farm in June of 2011, I took over my sister Calley’s role while she took some time off from the farm chaos, (farming is no joke, and Fat Toad Farm is an operating dairy, a start-up business, and a specialty food manufacturer all rolled into one – I’ve never worked so hard in my life!). In addition to milking goats and making caramel I am in charge of all things marketing – e.g. website and literature design, social media, advertizing, events, etc. We have one full-time employee, Katie, who, like all of us, wears many different hats, though I’d say she knows the goats better than any of us – their personalities and their habits – if we have a sick animal Katie will be the first to recognize it.

Was there ever any concern that people in the United States would be a little more leery of goat milk products since it’s not typically a large part of our diet?

We were one of the very first places in the U.S. to make locally produced caramel sauce, or cajeta, from goat’s milk, so we had some educating to do, but it has been a fun challenge for us.  We have found that people generally fall into one of three categories: those who know and love all things goat, those who know and love all things caramel, and those who are wary of one or the other.  However, we have also found that once people have tasted our caramel sauces all their apprehensions about goats and caramel vanish.

All of our products, our caramels and fresh cheeses have only the most subtle of tangy overtones that are the hallmark of great goat’s milk. The trick is using incredibly fresh, cold milk.  Goat’s milk is very sensitive to its environment, if it is allowed to warm up and linger in the barn, it will start to take on a distinctive goaty taste.  We joke that our cheeses are “goat cheese for people who don’t like goat cheese” – they are light and velvety and come in five delicious flavors – plain, maple, olive, ginger cilantro sesame and sundried tomato basil.  Our caramels have a beautiful, yet subtle tang right at the end of the taste that gives them a unique flavor and prevents them from being overly-sweet.  Our recipe is really just goat’s milk and organic cane sugar, so our sauces are incredibly rich and creamy – you can taste the grass our goats munch on all summer long and the honest earthiness that underlies our farm and business.

Your caramel is made onsite at your farm, correct?  Why did you choose to keep the production onsite rather than work with a third-party manufacturer?

It has always been important to us that we maintain as much control over the quality of our product as possible – that’s why we manage our own herd of goats and use our own fresh milk to make our products – we know exactly what our goats have been eating, we know exactly where their milk has been, how it has been collected and stored and for how long.  We have created a production kitchen that allows us to hand-stir caramel in large quantities without sacrificing quality.  Someday we may work with a third-party manufacturer, but for now we are very attached to the confidence we are able to have in the deliciousness of each jar of caramel we send out into the world, having carefully ushered it from grass to goat to jar to the FedEx truck ourselves.

How did you initially start selling your products?  Did you just focus on local sales, farmers’ market, online, etc?

We started off, like so many other small farms, at local farmers’ markets. From there we branched off into local Vermont stores and coops, and then to stores across the country.  We built our first website in 2010 so we could begin selling our caramel online as well.  We also have a small farm store for people who come to visit us and meet our goats – which we love!

I recently saw your products on the shelf at Williams-Sonoma and have been seeing your brand pop up in more and more high-end food stores around the country these days.  Do you mainly make these connections through tradeshows?

We have been to two tradeshows over the years – the NASFT NY Fancy Food Show in 2010 and the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.  At both of these shows we were able to connect with a lot of wonderful specialty food stores from across the country.

Often, people at some of these larger stores have been given a jar of our caramel as a gift or picked it up themselves at a local coop or specialty food store. I’d say our retailer relationships have come about as a result of a combination of outreach on our part and unsolicited interest from folks who appreciate our caramel and the way to do business.

Has the increased demand and distribution made it hard to keep up with production? 

Not yet, we are still capable of making more caramel than we currently have outlets for, but we’re looking forward to that changing in 2012!

I can’t go without mentioning that your company logo makes it impossible for someone to see and not smile.  How did the visual image of the fat toad with the rake come about?

Haha!  We LOVE our farm name and our logo, it is cute and different and memorable, and most importantly reflects our collective sense of humor and reminds us not to take ourselves to seriously!  The spring we were trying to come up with a name for our farm there was an especially large population of toads in the gardens and orchards – they are supposed to be indicators of healthy water and soils so we just went with it.

We are incredibly lucky to be friends and neighbors of Ed Koren, a fabulous cartoonist whose drawings regularly appear in the New Yorker magazine.  Ed agreed to draw our logo for us – he decided his first draft wasn’t quite right, so he took it back and made it “fatter” and there you have it!

Community is obviously important to Fat Toad Farm.  Can you tell me about the Floating Bridge Food and Farms Cooperative you helped start?

Our community is very important to us, especially out here in the Vermont boonies, you just can’t get along without a little help from your friends and neighbors. In 2009 we helped found the Floating Bridge Food and Farms Cooperative, a group of local family farms, restaurants, and inns working together to strengthen our community and offer authentic Vermont agricultural experiences to the public. It is a wonderful group of people to work with, we get together once a month to talk and plan events and put together local food and farm offerings for visitors to our area and local folks.  The array of skills represented by the folks in the coop is still shocking to me – in addition to raising every kind of vegetable, meat and dairy product imaginable, among us we have cheese makers, beekeepers, apple cider makers, brewers, wine makers (and drinkers), canoe crafters, Christmas tree farmers, wreath crafters, yarn spinners, horse-powered loggers, fiber artists, gourmet chefs, and my personal favorite – maple sugaring experts who collect sap via horse-drawn sleigh in the early spring.  FBFF is a truly special group of people with a wealth of knowledge and deliciousness to share – come visit us!

For a small artisan entrepreneur who is just starting out but is hoping to one day join you on the shelves at Williams-Sonoma, what advice would you pass along to them?

It has been very exciting for us to get calls from buyers at places like William-Sonoma, Barney’s of New York and other high end brands – it can be simultaneously dazzling and overwhelming. It feels a little cliché to say, but it is so, SO important, especially 45 pages deep in a new vendor manual, to remember who you are and what your company stands for – to stay true to your products and to your brand and to defend them rabidly.  As hard as it might be to say “no” sometimes, it’s critical to work with retailers that are a good “fit” for your product and will support your brand rather than undermine it.

Lastly, what’s next for Fat Toad Farm? 

Great question!  Keep on keepin’ on!  We have high hopes for 2012 – we have learned so much over the last couple of years and are finally looking forward to a year of relative predictability.   …knock on wood!  When your business plan revolves around a group of finicky (stubborn) small ruminants, absolutely nothing is predictable, but we can still hope.  I am hoping to spend more time this year developing recipes for our caramels and cheeses and I dream of creating a Fat Toad Farm cookbook.  My other major goal for this year is to develop a new caramel flavor – I’m thinking coconut curry or bourbon cinnamon, or something spicy?  Any suggestions?   …and of course it is always our goal to maintain sanity during the crazy summer months of goat herding, chores, gardening, caramel stirring, milking, haying, marketing, events, etc., farming IS actually insane, but I don’t think any of us would rather be doing anything else.

Because cute goats were promised, be sure to check out this video Fat Toad Farm sent along of the new baby goats which were born just a month or so ago.   Lest this not be enough cuteness for you, Fat Toad Farm welcomes visitors too!

* All photos are the property of Fat Toad Farm and are posted here with their permission.

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