If you’ve never had real fresh local goat cheese on a spring salad, or sprinkled over some buttered mashed potatoes, or teased into your favorite lasagna – you’re missing out my friend. If it’s not obvious, cheese is one of my favorite foods, but LOCAL cheese even more when it’s available. That’s what excited me when I came across Vicky Brown’s project.
You see, Vicky owns Little Brown Farm up in Freeland Washington and she recently launched a Kickstarter to help them finish their “Cheese Cave” which will help them sustain their farm throughout the year. You hear lots of people talk about sustainable farming, but Vicky and her family are living it. Such a passion for her craft, she doesn’t just live it, she takes the time to teach it to others and why it matters through tours on her farm and through local programs and participation.
I had no idea what a “Cheese Cave” was exactly, and Google Images was just distracting me with pictures of more cheese. So, I turned to Vicky to see if she would answer a few questions about her project.
Kicktraq: So tell me a little about your project. What’s this “cheese cave” thing all about?
A cheese cave is a place that holds the perfect environment (temperature and humidity) for aging cheeses. Cheeses can be very picky. Too moist of an environment and they will turn to a moldy mush. Too dry and they will crack the culture will die off. Too cold and the correct cultures will never flourish. Too warm and the cheese will spoil.
Our project will allow us to make our aged cheeses that we can currently only make 14 rounds at a time, much more often so we don’t just sell out of our favorites in a few hours every 3-4 months.
Our project is about more though, in order to build our cave we will be finishing a classroom area, which will double as our farm store and our receiving area for tours (with a gigantic window for watching what goes on in the cheese make room).
Kicktraq: A cheese cave is a rather interesting bit of construction. What made you decide to take it to Kickstarter?
We were introduced to Kickstarter by a local artist we are a big fan of, Anne Belov. We watched a few agricultural projects succeed and a few fail. We decided the ones that were succeeding were in alignment with what we were trying to do. We are purists, we want food without GMO’s from animals that are treated with respect and love. We know many people are becoming savvy about what they eat and where it comes from and have become passionate about supporting true agricultural bounty (not that mono-culture industrial agribusiness crap). We noticed a lot of those people are also enjoying using Kickstarter. We are even hoping to encourage Kickstarter to add a category for agriculture.
Kicktraq: I’ll be honest and say I was distracted by the idea of tasty goat cheese, but your farm seems like a lot more than that. What about your farm do you feel is amazing that people should know about?
Our farm is first about the animals. We love our goats, and our sheep, and our dogs, and our cats.
Secondly, it is about connections. Most of our connections are people to food source, and mostly through education. However, I’m passionate about people learning without feeling like they’re being taught. Come to the farm and feed babies bottles and you think you’re making a memory for a photo album but you’ll leave knowing each goat has a different and distinct personality. They don’t eat everything, but they are curious about their surroundings. You’ll learn cheesemaking takes days, sometimes longer. You’ll learn it is hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to create a cheesemaking facility. You may learn how different cheeses can taste made from the same milk. You may even get a microbiology lesson or a zoology lesson… or learn a bit of botany when we talk about our feed program, sometimes you might get volunteered to help with doula duties!
Third is about the cheese. I love cheesemaking. I’ve been told I have a gift for making cheese, I’d like to test that theory with my cave. I know I can make delicious fresh cheeses, and we’ve made a few batches of delightful aged cheeses. I can only dream about what we can do with a proper cave… well, if our Kickstarter funds I will be able to live that dream too.
Kicktraq: So what about you? What inspired you to begin creating an actual micro-creamery operation?
I am a former CFO. I have worked in the technology sector and for a public relations firm. I led a very stress-centric life… and then I met goats. My daughter started a FFA project in Southern CA and we got her a goat and boarded it at some crazy goat lady’s house with her herd. That crazy goat lady turned into my mentor, teaching me my first lessons of goat husbandry and cheesemaking (and a few other homesteading talents). She also turned into a dear friend. Sitting alone with her goats after a stressful day at work and a painful commute, I noticed my worries, my stress drifted away. The goats picked me. Farming picked me. Once I caught the bug, all I could do was learn everything I could, studying cheesemaking and goat husbandry every place I could. I no longer had the option. I was a farmer, a cheesemaker, a crazy goat lady. I was fortunate enough to be able to zigzag the nation and learn from some of the best cheesemaking talents around before I ended up bound to our own farm.
Kicktraq: There has been quite an outpouring of local support for your Kickstarter. So many little extras for local backers from Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival tickets, Lavender Wind Farm spices, Island Apiaries honey, even bee-keeping lessons, and so much more. Is it gratifying to have so much local support?
The local support has been overwhelming. These people that have been inspired to offer gifts as additional rewards have already reached into their pockets and given serious pledges to the project. They are as invested in our success as we are. They are really my partners in agriculture… each doing everything in their power to make sure our little creamery survives. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to admit to being moved to tears more than once these past few days. I feel like I’ve been receiving a giant hug from every farmer and cheese consumer out there. Overwhelming is the only word I can come up with for it. We have worked hard to bring dairying back to an Island that had a dairying heritage and lost it for various reasons. It was a long struggle and we often felt alone, outnumbered and that the deck was stacked against us. We never surrendered to those feelings and now THIS is our proof, we weren’t alone. We live in an amazing community. I think many people do, but they don’t realize it unless they go through something like this that relies on community support. I think this support is the biggest benefit we could hope to get from Kickstarter, and it isn’t even something we considered when deciding to do our project.
Kicktraq: So let me ask the hard question; As someone not local to you (by a few thousand miles), what would you like to say to non-local people that would encourage them to support your project?
Great question! I’m a huge Michael Pollan fan, and what I got from him is that you can’t do everything perfect all the time, but you can improve what you’re doing, sometimes. You might find it hard to give up fast food, even though you may know it comes from industrial ‘farming’ that is horrible on our environment and our bodies, and has been scientifically designed in a lab to be crave-worthy, but not beneficial for us. So what if you limited your fast food and decide all weekend meals would be cooked from foods you could recognize their origin (do you know what a broccoli plant looks like)? Small steps.
For us it is trying to reach people that understand and care about what small farmers are doing. We don’t have to be in your backyard for you to know we are important and our very survival is a challenge with what we are up against. We can’t become profitable and we can only work so hard in our off-farm jobs to support our farming habit until we burn out. If small family farms can’t find ways to become profitable, we keep losing small farms, often they are lost forever as farmland. Monoculture farms are willing to fill the void with ‘cheap’ (subsidized, environmentally hazardous) food-products. I was too stubborn to give up when it took 4 years to get our dairy open, and I am resourceful enough to figure out a way to become sustainable.
A little support for us, even from a distance, means a resource is there for our next generation of farmers. Honestly, to support us from a distance you either have to be one of those willing to travel for cheesemaking classes (like I did), or just have the bigger picture in mind. Your direct benefit is going to be limited (although we have some pretty nifty rewards with the community kicking in!), but who knows… that kid that I got hooked on livestock last Saturday may end up just outside your town and end up supplying the freshest, best farm products to your local market or restaurant, or provide healthy food to your retirement home. I will teach as many people as I can if I can build a venue, if you believe in what we do, now is a good time to pay it forward. It seems to always work its way around.
Kicktraq: Ok, we know you love them all “equally”, but secretly who’s your favorite goat and why?
Well, you only have to spend about 3 minutes on our farm to know that isn’t true at all. I don’t love all my goats equally. I love Velvet Rose best. Period. I love her more than any other and even have a cheese named after her (a wine-washed rind aged cheese I’ll be able to make more of in that cave!). I also have a fresh version of that cheese named Saratoga Satin after her daughter. Velvet Rose is by no means our ‘best’ goat, and is sometimes downright obstinate… and is our only goat that truly bites. But I love her, and she loves me. When we sit in the field she chases the others away from me, gives me a backrub with her big head and then settles down next to me like a faithful dog. She is my girl and I am her human.
That said, yes I do love all my goats, and milking takes so much longer because they demand their hugs before they will get off the stand… but there is no question that Velvet is the queen of my heart.
Kicktraq: You’re about a week from closing your campaign. If somehow you exceeded your goal by a considerable margin, what could you do with that extra funding?
Extra funding! We will be thrilled to fund, but extra funding? Yes, we’ve already considered what we would do. We wanted to do a different project on Kickstarter that is a higher priority for us on the farm, but felt it just wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough for Kickstarter.
We are in desperate need of more fencing and a shelter/pole barn to go along with it. The additional area for the girls would allow us to use more rotational grazing, reduce our feed bill, have even healthier happier goats and improve our impact on the land (something we are very sensitive about). It has always been in our business plan to have a livestock operation that actually leaves the land in better condition after we have been farming.
We will somehow be accomplishing this ourselves anyway this year, because my girls need it. Extra funding on Kickstarter would let us accomplish it sooner and alleviate the stress of trying to figure out where we going to come up with all the funds. Our total ‘improvements’ on the farm this year will cost us about $48,000. We have already invested nearly $300,000 into our dairy. We are at the end of our equity line, credit, 401k loans and savings. The creamery is not yet profitable (which we hope the classes and cave would turn the tide on). We are working literally 18-20 hour days 7 days a week. We know what we are doing is good and honorable, but we don’t know how much longer we can sustain it if it doesn’t at least start paying for expenses, as much from an energy as a financial standpoint.
The stress of not knowing how you will pay your next feed bill, or whether to pay it or your mortgage is a problem facing many small farmers. Our grain costs have gone up. Our hay costs have increased. Our inspections are frequent and drain our profitability (we lose production time and have to have extra staff on hand). Our cheese is already priced at the maximum the market will bear. What we are doing is too important to give up on, and a Kickstarter project is born! But Kickstarter is only a small part of what we hope to do.
Kicktraq: Thank you so much Vicky for speaking with us. Is there anything else you’d like to share with people?
Whether people choose to support our Kickstarter or not, I am thrilled that you have given me this forum. Perhaps learning a little about us will inspire them to get to know who is producing their food. I hope they will decide to not quibble over the true price of food that they pay at markets, instead of the cheap food in grocery stores or fast food that leaves the rest of society to pick up the tab. Maybe they will find ways to reach out and support small farms. In my opinion Kickstarter is a nice DIRECT way to do that. You know where your money is going and don’t have to question if it is being used to pay salaries of some administrator in some office somewhere.
Growing food, whether its heritage Rockwell beans, honey, lavender or cheese, is an art. Here’s hoping everyone becomes a supporter of the arts.
I would encourage readers to contact me directly as well. Of course we are very busy with kidding season and cheesemaking and markets, so sometimes a reply takes a little while, but I really do love to share what we do here. I’m happy to field questions and help where I can.
As I’m writing this, Cheese Cave & Cheesemaking Classes at the Little Brown Farm currently has 137 backers, $11,585 of $21,500 (59% of their goal). They have less than 5 days to go and are only half way to their goal. If you’re local or are willing to travel a little, there are literally dozens of extra bonus rewards you have the potential to snag at your disposal (and we weren’t kidding about the bee keeping lessons).
If you aren’t local, you can still help. The minimum reward to obtain a physical item is only $10, but you can give as little as $5 for a thank you message on their homepage. If you’d love some of their cheese, the $50-level includes a sampling. But, if you’re adventuresome, pledges go up to $3000 for a cheese-tastic adventure around local farms and a picnic featuring local products.
But don’t worry, even a dollar helps, and Vicky loves her $1 backers just the same.
If you want more information about Little Brown Farm, you can check out their blog where Vicky shares a plethora of information about her and her farm!
Oh, and as always, I’d never recommend anything I wouldn’t be willing to back myself.