The Sweet Life in Vermont
Up on a hill above the small town of Townshend in southern Vermont is Big Picture Farm, where artist Louisa Conrad and her husband, Lucas Farrell, an award-winning poet, make goat-milk cheeses and award-winning caramels and manage three idyllic Airbnbs. Conrad, whose beautiful artwork of her goats and farm life now graces the Big Picture website, its caramel packaging, and other products, shares how a city girl who grew up in Manhattan and Paris found herself caring for a herd of fifty goats.
Did you and your husband always plan to own a farm?
No. We went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where Lucas and I first met, and then we both went to graduate school—I went for my master’s degree in Los Angeles, and he went for his in Montana. After that, we couldn’t agree on a place to live, except for Vermont. So we came back here and got jobs. My husband was teaching at a local college, and I taught art to kids. We were going to stay in teaching, but it was 2008, when the economy tanked, and it didn’t seem likely we both would be able to continue working in the same location.
We had planted a garden in Vermont and really wanted to put down roots here. We reached out to a local farm and asked if we could work for them, and they offered us a six-month apprenticeship. We fell in love with goats, and our interest in making goat’s-milk caramels took over. We feel lucky that we switched gears.
Why did you start making caramels?
I’ve always been obsessed with cheese, and when I lived in Paris as a little girl, my mom would get me big hunks of it. I also always wanted to make cheese, and that’s how Lucas and I got into raising goats. In Vermont, the cheese landscape was well established in 2010, and so we were a little bit daunted since there were already so many amazing cheese makers in the state. Most specialty food stores have confection corners, so we thought it would be cool to make caramels and tell the story of the goats through these sweets. As an artist and a writer, we liked the idea of our products being gifts that include a story.
How did you start your goat-dairy farm and confectionery?
When we came here in 2010 to work for the farmers who owned our farm, they allowed us to bring three goats as part of the deal. They had an active farmers market booth, and I worked it with them. We were allowed to sell our caramels as well. At first, we cooked them in our home kitchen and then we moved to a commercial space in town to make them. In 2011, we bought some land from the farmers, and then in 2012, we bought the farm buildings from them and moved our operation here. In 2017, we bought the last bit of the farm from them.
How did you choose the flavors for your caramels?
All our flavors, such as our Brown Butter Bourbon and Cider Honey, are locally inspired. When we were in the shared kitchen space before we owned the farm side of our property, our next-door neighbor made chai and said his chai spice would be a perfect flavoring for our caramels, so now we make a Chai caramel. One of our other flavors is Maple Cream, which is an obvious one since we are in Vermont. As far as the Cocoa Latte, I have always loved white chocolate and espresso. Our Raspberry Rhubarb incorporates a local raspberry-rhubarb blush wine. The flavors in the wine are already distilled down, so it adds a subtle flavor to the caramels. Our original Sea Salt and Vanilla caramel put us on the map, and we also have a delicious Wild Chocolate Mint.
Was there a big learning curve when you started your farm?
The first three to four years of running the farm were a bit insane. To try and get things going, we were firing on all cylinders and working about eighty hours every week between running the farm and starting the business. But now that we have our kids, it’s harder to pull off that kind of momentum. We have more of a forty-hour-a-week schedule now because our children demand our attention. The average workday has changed—in the beginning we were doing everything ourselves, and now we have an amazing team. But there are still so many moving parts, so we have to do just about everything, like being an electrician, a plumber, and a mechanic because there is always something that needs extra attention. I do the sales and the marketing, and my husband handles the accounting and the books in addition to all the big tractor work. We have six people who help us full time, and they make the caramels and the cheese, milk the goats, help with our Airbnbs, and ship all our caramels.
Do you enjoy living in the countryside?
I like the pace of life, eating and growing my own food, and seeing bees, birds, and flowers. The first two years of owning the farm were more of an adjustment. I was missing my lattes and opportunities to wear high heels. I used to miss riding the subway and the bustle of the city, but when I visit my parents, who still live in Manhattan, I now get a little flustered.
Do your young daughters, Maisie and Minna, help on the farm?
They do. They are still little, but Maisie, who turned six this year, likes to do chores and feed the animals, and Minna, who is two, is partial to our barn-cat population that often has kittens in the spring. She does a really good job of raising A-plus kittens that we give away to other people.
Big Picture Farm is a certified Animal Welfare Approved farm. What does that mean?
Animal Welfare Approved is the highest certification you can get in terms of animal welfare. According to the certification, the animals have to be outside on pastures, and in the winter when they can’t be outside, they need to have a certain amount of space, and they need quality feed. It is a big deal. We are really proud of it, and we work hard to maintain it.
What can visitors experience at your farm?
We offer goat hangouts, where people can sign up online and come and snuggle with the goats. Those hangouts are really popular, and people love to have uplifting moments with the goats as opposed to just looking at them from the other side of the fence. We also have three Airbnb properties: a one-bedroom, a two-bedroom, and a nine-bedroom. It’s great because they allow people to stay at the farm, wake up and see the lovely hillside and the beautiful birds, hear the rooster crowing in the morning, and wander around. It gives them the full experience of the farm, which I really like being able to share with people.
For more info, visit bigpicturefarm.com