TOWNSHEND—Big Picture Farm recently took home two prestigious gold sofi awards at the 2015 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, for their farmstead goat milk caramels.
The sofi — “specialty outstanding food innovation” — awards are given by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) and are judged by members of the industry, including members of the media who cover the food beat and buyers for specialty food shops.
Big Picture Farm’s raspberry-rhubarb goat-milk caramel won the award for best new product in all categories.
The farm also won a prize for best confection, awarded to its chai goat caramel.
The caramels went up against more than 3,000 products, from which approximately 300 judges selected 125 finalists across 23 categories.
Lucas Farrell, who owns and operates Big Picture Farm with Louisa Conrad, said the “red carpet” awards ceremony is “like the Oscars,” but for food.
“We knew we were a finalist,” Farrell said, “but we didn’t think we were going to win best new product.”
Big Picture Farm’s goat caramels are smooth, rich, creamy, and melt at the perfect rate: not too fast, not too slow.
If you closed your eyes and someone placed one on your tongue and did not tell you, you would have no idea it was made with goats’ milk.
So why do they bother using goats’ milk?
Because it’s there.
Conrad and Farrell took over the farm and cheesemaking facilities from Bob and Anne Works of Peaked Mountain Farm, who have since retired.
That transaction included the goats the Workses used to make their cheese.
The duo began working at the farm a little over five years ago, and — to paraphrase Farrell’s telling of the story — they engaged in a slight bit of subterfuge to get the job.
Although Conrad and Farrell had completed a rigorous apprenticeship at Salisbury’s Blue Ledge Farm making goat cheese and tending the animals, Farrell said they told Anne Works that they planned to make caramels from her goats’ milk — perhaps to get a leg up on other applicants.
But they had never made caramels before, Farrell admitted years later but not to Anne Works during the interview.
The plan almost backfired shortly after Conrad and Farrell were hired.
“One day, Anne brought me a gallon of goats’ milk and said, ‘What do you want to do with it?’” Farrell said.
That night, he and Conrad searched for caramel recipes.
Through trial and error, the pair made a bunch of batches in their home kitchen.
It worked, but a little too well.
While Conrad and Farrell were still employed making and selling cheese for the Workses and caring for the farm, they also began making goat caramels and selling them at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market. They also sent an order form to friends and family one holiday season.
“It did well,” Conrad said, “we got a huge response."
“Suddenly, it was, like, ’Oh, crap!’” she added. They had to fill all of those orders. She reminisced about huge bowls of wrapped caramels taking over their kitchen table. Meanwhile, they were still getting the recipe right.
It must have worked.
About 18 months later, Big Picture Farm’s Sea Salt Vanilla Caramel — the only flavor at that point — won a coveted SOFI award.
After that, Conrad said, “we got more orders than we had product.”
The pair never expected to go into business as candy makers. They never expected to go into business at all.
“In our first week with the Workses, Bob asked us, ‘Do you think you’ll ever turn this into a business?’” Conrad recalled.
“I said, ‘No!’” she said emphatically, adding, “We just wanted to make cheese.”
But, Farrell said, “we fell under the charms of the goats.”
Now the goats keep the pair busy enough to employ four full-time employees, and they are hiring a fifth this year.
“It’s nice to have a team,” Farrell said.
Expanding, with some help
In the five years since they began, Conrad and Farrell bought the barn that houses the operation from Bob and Anne Works, and they are building an addition for their expanding business.
The new space will house more production space for the creamery and give them a place for events such as cheese classes, luncheons, a tasting room, and “fun art events,” Conrad said.
She is trained as a fine artist and drew the packaging artwork, including the picture of the goat that serves as Big Picture Farm’s logo.
Some of the farm’s funding came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose value-added producers grant provided the business with $50,000.
Farrell noted that “that’s a grant, not a loan.”
He also expressed appreciation for the loan officers at the Brattleboro Savings & Loan, noting how involved they were in the process when he and Conrad needed to borrow money, even going so far as visiting the farm to see the operation.
“Vermont supports agriculture!” Conrad said.
“We’re lucky to have so many good food producers in the area to source from,” she added.
Conrad and Farrell’s large, abundant garden lies between their house and the barn housing the goats’ milking parlor, the cheese- and caramel-making room, the cheese cave, and Big Picture’s offices.
There, among other crops, they grow rhubarb.
When Conrad and Farrell were developing the recipe for their raspberry rhubarb caramels, they tried processing their rhubarb a number of ways, but the flavor was not quite right.
They found the right rhubarb in a bottle of wine made less than 20 miles from Big Picture Farm.
“We use Putney Mountain Winery’s rhubarb blush wine” in the raspberry rhubarb caramels, Conrad said, noting that Kate and Charles Dodge’s wine “has that perfect essence.”
Putney Mountain Winery’s rhubarb blush wine is made with rhubarb, raspberries, and strawberries grown in Putney and the surrounding towns, thus adding extra locavore cred to the caramels.
The raspberry-rhubarb caramels do not taste like wine; rather, the wine adds juicy, bright fruity notes to the rich, creamy caramels.
And Chai Wallah, Neil Harley’s Guilford-made chai blend, goes into Big Picture Farm’s chai goat caramels.
“The chai is my favorite caramel,” Farrell said.
The Indian-style spiced black tea beverage contributes subtle warming flavors of nutmeg and cardamom to the confections.
Some of the other local products used in Big Picture Farm’s caramels are maple syrup from Plummer’s Sugar House in Grafton, Singing Cedars’ honey from Orwell, cider jelly from Springfield’s Wood’s Cider Mill, Brattleboro-roasted espresso from Mocha Joe’s, and cows’ milk cream from Rutland’s Thomas Dairy.
And, of course, the milk from Conrad and Farrell’s goats.
On a recent late, hot afternoon, a visitor to the farm stood across Peaked Mountain Road from Big Picture’s barn. As she looked up towards the neighbor’s land, suddenly 43 goats came trotting down the hill, flanked by two gigantic, white Italian Maremma Sheepdogs named Elvis and Josie.
It was all a jumble of perky ears, very full udders, and spindly legs kicking up the dust from the dirt road.
One more goat brought up the rear, helped along by Farrell.
“This is Orion,” he said. The all-white Saanen is their second-oldest goat, and “she’s always last.”
The 44 goats rounded the curve from the road to the driveway, then trotted to the barn’s milking parlor, designed and built by Major Farm’s David Major. There, apprentice Siri Gossman hooked them up to vacuum-pumped milking machines while the gals snacked on feed from colorful buckets.
Their milk travels about 20 paces from parlor to make-room, where it becomes cheese and caramels.
Their cheese is still aging in the cave, but Conrad and Farrell expect it to be ready in the early autumn.