STORY BY MARGOT ZALKIND
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY ARCHER MAYOR & BIG PICTURE FARM
Not long after I moved to Vermont, I began to realize what being in Vermont meant.
Not just cows and quiet, syrup and lots of trees, but an embrace of community. And accessibility. I could ask a neighbor for a jump start on my snow-covered car. I could call the Governor and ask for advice. I had a cocoon of help and support and kindness.
As we considered this series - about people who thrive, grow and succeed in Vermont - we knew the stories are not just about business or money, but a love story. The interweaving of a person with an idea, a mission, and how Vermont plays such a vital role in the process.
—Margot Zalkind Mayor
I had never noticed this narrow dirt road before. I climbed the steep hill, through deep woods and not much else, and suddenly many soulful big eyes were sizing me up as I came upon the goats crowding the fence to see who was arriving. Some were more interested than others, a few plainly didn’t care. The grass held much more promise than I.
As soon as I entered the multi-level, huge, old barn, the smell washed over me, quietly nostalgic and sweet: Old hay, animals, and floorboards worn down over many years by hooves and boots. The dark (now-empty) horse stalls open up to a pristine white office at the back of the barn, the hub of the business of Big Picture Farm.
Big Picture Farm is a small goat dairy and farmstead/confectionery/creamery in Southern Vermont, started in 2010 by Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell. Their award-winning caramels and farmstead cheeses are made with goat’s milk from their visibly happy and healthy herd. These goats smile.
Weaving their art into everything they do was evident the minute I started to learn about Big Picture Farm. The website has lively, playful goat drawings by Louisa and heart-wrenching tear-filled odes to beloved, bygone goats by Luke.
There are luminescent museum-quality photographs of shimmering goats. And of course, every goat has a personality and a name. June Bug and Queens, Brooklyn and Annabelle, their names as diverse as the goats’ personalities themselves.
The creativity is evident in their lives, their environment, and their business. Mixing business and farming, life and community and generosity all take energy and time and good hearts. That shows everywhere here.
These two magical, gifted artists run a business with a skill that would put many air traffic controllers to shame. Posted just inside the barn’s wagon-size doors, is a daily whiteboard to-do list that made me dizzy.
As they put it, “Feed the animals, shlep the water, set up new pastures, milk, make the caramel, age the cheese, muck, clean forever, hurry up, repeat. Then repeat again before going to bed.”
They noted, “If it wasn’t for YouTube videos, a shared pastoral romanticism, and online goat forums, I’m quite sure we would have folded long ago. The stress of it all—the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion it dished out—was real. By afternoon/evening chores, one felt damn weary.”
“People always like to think of us as a farm, which is true, but we’re also very much a small business - and running a small business is equally insane to running a farm!”
So, why Vermont?
Louisa had family that lived up in Addison County. And she had come for summer camp, so as she put it, “I always had a little bit of Vermont. I’d smelled it and wanted more.” On a mid-April visit to Middlebury College, a foot of snow surprised everyone, the sun was sparkling and she thought, “This is perfect. If you’re happy when it snows in April in Vermont, you know it’s gonna be okay.”
Luke and Louisa attended Middlebury, traveled, went to grad school, taught, and came back to Vermont. And along the way, they fell in love with goats. They interned, learned farming, and explored business options. They considered cheesemaking, chocolates - and happily landed on caramels.
Big Picture Farm now has an array of wonderfulness that tempts immediately: Eight flavors of caramels, from vanilla to maple, even cider. They offer ‘Goaturtles’ (sea salt vanilla caramel seated upon a bed of cashews and bathed in organic, fair trade, dark chocolate), truffles, honey, and hats and pillows with the sweet faces of goats. They have repeatedly won national awards for their caramels, deservedly so.
Restraint and discipline were sorely needed as I was offered samples. “We want to make a delicious caramel, not a caramel that would last for a year on a shelf. That just wasn’t what our goal was.”
Louisa told me, “I want to make sure that this food product stays fresh and alive and current. We sell online (bigpicturefarm.com) and to more than 1200 stores: food co-ops, specialty stores, cheese shops, museum gift shops. We also sell to florists who use the caramels for gift baskets. And some of our bigger accounts are people who do a lot of corporate gifting. Good in a basket, included with something else.”
Building a strong community is a long-time Vermont tradition. “We graze our neighbor’s fields and swap eggs and cheese and there are very symbiotic relationships. A bagel-making neighbor from Boston comes to Vermont every week and drops off a big bag of bagels. In exchange, we give them eggs, sometimes strawberries, sometimes honey, sometimes just caramels.”
“One neighbor has big machines and he’ll come and dig something out, and we give them produce. Another neighbor grazes their horse on an unused field, in exchange we’ll pick their blueberry patch.” It is important to them to be good neighbors as well as to have good neighbors.
The goodwill permeates everything they do: a business rented their farmhouse for a week-long retreat. As they were leaving, they offered, “We have leftover food. What can we do with it?” Within minutes, Luke had the food boxed-up and donated to the local food pantry.
They added, “There is a sense of pride in Vermont and working the land that may not exist everywhere. Being a farmer in Vermont is very deeply respected and admired. We picked Vermont specifically because of its political and economic and medical philosophy.”
And there’s help for farmers – “Vermont supports the working landscape, there are grants that help people who are keeping the land working, because that’s what people in Vermont have said is important, whether they’re farmers or not.”
“We received great help from NOFA Vermont (North East Organic Farming Association). They represent the small farmer in so many ways. Vermont farmers have a really strong group of people advocating for them.”
Luke recently joined the board of Grace Cottage Hospital, bringing his business background and love of community to this wonderful, local hospital. He calls it “a little diamond in the rough.”
“We’re finally at a point where we’re able to engage more, after many years of building our company. We were always community involved, but it was mostly through providing jobs, and helping out where we could, serving on the board of the farmer’s markets and donating to a lot of local organizations. Now, we try to do more.”
And throughout, despite the hard work and family, the business and the planning, the creativity and heart of these entrepreneurs prevails.
On the death of Orion, Luke wrote:
“Orion” was our first goat here at Big Picture Farm. Indeed, it would be accurate to say our farm was not even a farm until Orion arrived here the day before Thanksgiving, 2010.
I drove to New Hampshire with my younger brother in our grandfather’s blue pickup truck and when we returned hours later, we released the latch and out hopped Orion, followed by a second all-white Saanen goat named, “Fern”. Orion was not quite two years old and Fern just shy of a year. Timidly, the unfamiliar creatures followed us into the far fields, a flurry of snow filling in our footprints as we went. Fact: nothing was ever the same again. In just a couple of hours, chores, would begin in earnest (and then never stop!).
Orion and Fern marked the beginning of our life as farmers. The founding goats. There were times, especially during our second and third years farming (which were the most challenging and demanding in our experience – the accumulated realities and exhaustion settling in, our farm and business accelerating so unwieldy that it felt as if the wheels were going to come whirling off the wagon at any moment), when, accompanying the goats back to their new pasture after milking, I would find myself alongside Orion, who always took her place at the very back of the single-file line, as herd-queens often do.
We’d arrive at the new pasture together and I would close the gate behind her. Afterwards I would wait and watch her take her first bliss-bestowing bites of dinner in the pre-dusk splendor.
I marveled at the pure joy she took in those first mouthfuls of purple vetch or sheaf of maple leaves or swath of bluegrass, dragonflies brimming overhead, the buzzing insects embedded all around, the silent jazz of her interminable beard brushing softly the heads of seed stalks.
Watching Orion in her natural element—always in rhythm with the seasons and their offerings—would remind me of what it was we were doing. And why.
All the weight of my responsibilities – the absorption in my daily affairs – would subside. My axis, tilt. And I’d be left with a feeling of renewing and reorienting, a sense of belonging. A blending of the self into the farm as a whole.
Chores, animals, landscape, weather, forage, soil, hunger, love—all were part of the same organism. Not only could I perceive the beauty of its architecture, I could even understand (if only briefly) something of the sum of its parts. A perspective shift: Orion’s gift. And I’d feel uplifted. Calmed.
The loss of our dear companion is overwhelming. Suddenly the queen of our herd, our compass, the centerpiece of our farm and family, is gone. We feel her absence deeply. Our hearts hurt. As our first goat, she tended to us as much (if not more) than we tended to her. Something in the foundation has shifted.
And yet her teachings and her legacy will live on. Mother to four surviving does, grandmother to seven (Eva, Stella, Matilda, Eclipse, Curious George, Scout, and Fiddle) and even great grandmother to two, Orion’s spirit will continue to flourish and her memory nourish for many years to come. We are grateful to have known her. We celebrate her, and will miss her always.
I asked, “Was all this an easy start?”
“Not really,” they reflected. There were years of 80-hour weeks, every week. But they are proud of the way they treat their goats, and their welfare.
They are also, they say, “Proud of creating jobs and providing a living wage and access to benefits for our team. We’re proud of turning this idea into a reality that allows us to live in Vermont. We have been able put down roots where we wanted to put down roots.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “Could you imagine doing what you do anywhere else?”
“No. There is a network of support that exists in Vermont. Whether it’s neighborly or foundational or from organizations, Vermont is really great at supporting young farmers and creating community. It’s also a landscape that is so beautiful that you’re willing to put in all that work to make it happen. This particular hillside is specifically perfectly suited for our animals. The goats are happy. We are happy.”