LOUISA & LUKE
BIG PICTURE FARM
New York City to Townsend, Vermont
Driving up to Big Picture Farm, feels like you are driving into the Shire. Lush, green fields, divided by rows of thick trees, heavy with leaves. Unlike many working farms, the buildings and land are impeccably tidy and well maintained. It is hard to believe that Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell have only been running their goat farm and goat milk caramel confectionery business for less than four years. Before starting Big Picture Farm, the two worked as professors and artists (Louisa a photographer/visual artist and Luke a poet and creative writer). Their initial interest in farming came from a mutual love of cheese and a need to figure out a way to create a sustainable living in the country. They started apprenticing at a sheep farm in Vermont, making cheese and maintaining the flock. Their sheep milk cheese plans derailed when they spent some time with a herd of goats. The goats’ personalities and mischievous antics won Louisa and Luke over immediately. Louisa’s brother, a tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, was the one that suggested they pursue caramels instead of trying to edge their way into the competitive goat cheese market. The two of them knew literally nothing about making candy and it took almost a year just to get a recipe locked in. After four years of insane hard work, it is incredible to see what these two have accomplished. Their Big Picture Farm caramels have won numerous awards and are sold in Anthropologie, Crate and Barrel and fine specialty stores all over the United States. Everything they have built and created has their own unique stamp on it, from their packaging and branding that was developed using Louisa’s illustrations to their specialty caramels that use seasonal ingredients harvested locally. Big Picture’s success proves that with hard work, perseverance, dedication and love for what you do, you can build a successful and nationally recognized business in the country. I can’t wait to see what these two are able to accomplish in the coming years. With their powers combined, they seem capable to conquer anything they set their minds to. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Vermont was the only place we could agree to live. We both went to college here together, after college we both went to grad school and I (Louisa) was content in Los Angeles or New York City and Luke was content in Montana, so we compromised and moved back to Vermont.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Louisa: Lack of restaurants has always been pretty high on my list of problems with living rurally and making friends.
LUKE: I think we were in the situation where we were moving back to the town we went to college in so there was this sense of preserved familiarity as opposed to actual familiarity with the town. It made it less foreign to move back to that place but what we discovered when we moved back was that it was familiar only in the sense of being 21-years-old and now that we were no longer in that age group it was a very different community.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Louisa: We had a two-phase scenario. We initially moved to the country, but not to farm, we weren't intentionally moving rurally, we were moving here to teach, and it happened to be where our teaching jobs were. Teaching was one step and then deciding to farm was a completely different step because when you farm you become very tied to the land. You have these animals and a mini eco-system that needs tending and you can’t leave, so you are really planted. Not only are you choosing to live in an isolated situation but you are going to get invitations to go places and you can’t go.
Luke: Farming has been this whole emotional and physical evolution. First farming for somebody else and retaining the romantic ideas about farming and then launching your own thing which has a whole transition period which we are still going through. These animals and this farm is completely dependent on us so the reality is a lot different than when we were farming for others.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Louisa: I just want a latte sometimes or to be able to go into a coffee shop and be anonymous, or be anonymous anywhere for that matter. A lot of the things that were important to you in the city, even in the sense of general maintenance are a) not possible but b) totally ridiculous to try and maintain. For better or worse, I now feel like I finally fit in more in my community, which means… I wear socks and sandals most days; they don’t match, because who cares?
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Luke: I feel like one thing that I have learned having started this farm, when you first move you think “I am going to live here forever” and I have realized that anything can happen in a lifetime, in a year, so I think that, if anything the possibilities in my head are bigger and anything can happen.
Louisa: I used to say we had this 5-year plan. We would farm for five years and then we would be in Paris (laughs) I don’t know where I saw that trajectory going.
Luke: I think that is what I told you. It was to convince you that farming was a good idea.
Louisa: So in year four, I can say, with conviction, that there is no way we will be in Paris next year because we have a lot of paying off to do with what we have built so far. But in terms of returning to a city, I don’ t have a particular urge to return to a city. I am trying to figure out a way to make more time in our life to get off farm in different seasons. I would love to go rent a house in Charleston for a month in February and just be able to explore. I think a lot of that exploration would be more urban but in cities you have to work so hard to have a good quality of life and you get pampered in the country because of that higher quality of life, I don’t know if I could go back to that kind of a grind full time.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Pick a good location. Research the spot you want to be because it really depends what your needs are. Our needs were a spot where we could have fifty goats and milk them and this was the spot but there are different communities and different types of places and that can make a big difference.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Louisa: I’d like to say that I just dive into museums and cultural events but in the last four years we have just been so exhausted that whenever we aren’t here on the farm we kind of just want to do nothing and relax. Hopefully as we evolve as a business we will have more energy to enjoy more things when we visit the city.
Luke: We go to a lot of movies. We don’t even have a movie theater here so over Christmas when we are NYC we will go and see a movie every night.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your art?
Louisa: My work has always centered around place and landscape and I think with farming my art practice itself has taken a back seat, or more like tucked in a trailer, behind a car, locked up, but it is still there as an idea. But I think my trajectory makes a lot of sense as to how my art practice has evolved. I feel like now I am in this very long term collaboration with the hillside and a set of goats and building materials and how it evolves over time I am not sure, but it is in an archiving phase and I am trying to figure out how to present information. I like the fact that it is very home grown and when the art practice does get a chance to breathe again, it will be from here and something that I will feel very comfortable with. I was anthropology major in college and so I spent too much time thinking about subject. With goats it is easier.
Luke: My relationship with my art practice is so different than Louisa’s. I feel like Louisa is really able to integrate her practice into our business marketing and into her role on the farm. So when I think about Louisa’s art I think that she has a practice as much as she ever has, I don’t see a distinction of before and after in terms of art production, except that the material has changed. With my practice, it is very much absent, I don’t spend time writing anymore. I barely read anymore. I read a bunch of How To books, a lot of manuals, how to fix a machines, etc. I am still writing, just not nearly as much, I am hoping it is something that I come back to later.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away
from the city?
Luke: I have learned to be self-dependent. I have learned to fix things. Before I didn’t know anything about plumbing or electrical, that is silly but those are the things I have to deal with every day so there is all of this education in practical stuff that I didn’t get in my liberal arts college or even growing up. But overall I don’t think I have changed that much.
Louisa: Change is an interesting thing, I’m not sure if it is a continuum in a certain direction or an actual change. For us, a lot of when I feel myself changing, it is more to do with our work, our business, than it does with where I live. A lot of it is trying to make Big Picture Farm happen, trying to become a sustainable business where we can afford to live here and generate an income with this farm. All of the reasons you did that in the beginning were to free yourself from having a job and working for somebody else and then you arrive in this place where you have created conditions that are completely dependent on you. You build your cage. That is the perspective that you come to and you have this crisis moment where you have to step back and work through it to realize that is also a perception and that is where you really learn about yourself and what you are made of. You can take a step back and re-assess why you are here and change if you need to.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
Louisa: Alarm goes off at 4:45am, the dogs start barking and Luke makes coffee. It is a perk and I am not giving it up. I like that very much. These days we finally have help, we aren’t milking and moving the goats at 5:30am but we are up and doing other things. During the week, starting at 5am we are either making a new pasture, cheese making, wrapping caramels and we fit most of our office work in before 8am. Every day is really different too, some days there are tons of things to do and it is very stressful but other days I am able to just garden a bit and drink coffee.
Luke: We don’t have a strict routine because we finally have employees to help with the scheduled elements of the farm. Then we generally have lunch around 10:30-11am and depending on the weather we do pasture work and fieldwork. We always have dinner here, in the summers we sit outside, have a drink. Pretty much a cocktail is part of the evening routine and then we go to bed around 8:30-9pm.
How has your relationship evolved since starting and running a business together?
Louisa: Before we ran a business together we co-taught a class at Middlebury College together and we always collaborated artistically but we feel like in that collaboration we got to know the working sides of one another and we learned the differences of personality. We have really different minds and being able to work together is probably the best part of doing what we do, but has also been, at times, one of the hardest parts. Not now, but when things aren’t going well it is hard to work with the person you love, because you have different ideas of how you got to that problem point and how you should resolve it. Being able to identity and separate our tasks as much as possible is really important and the delegation of different areas has been important and listening to the other person's ideas without judgment. We have different ways of managing people and negotiating that and needing to understand we need to be on the same page but also still be our own people at the same time.
Luke: In the beginning when you are starting a business and you are like, "I’m right, this is how we should do it." Now, a few years in, I really feel like I’m not always right. The perspectives should be brought together somehow, and when they are, those end up being the best decisions and they make life richer.
We have had to hash out so many things for the business so we are really honest with one another about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t feel like there is anything that I don’t have a complete pulse on how Louisa feels. I know when I am going to piss her off, when I am being annoying and when I’m right.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Louisa: If you would had told me when I was graduating college, when I was already living in Vermont, that I was going to have a goat dairy and do anything with goats milk, I would have told you that you were bat shit crazy. We moved back to Vermont because we were in love with the landscape and the quality of life here. We realized that the community that felt the richest in Vermont was the agricultural community and we wanted to get our farming toes wet. Honestly if I hadn’t grown up in the Upper East Side of NYC, I would have gotten involved earlier, but I felt like it was something that I wasn’t capable of because it wasn't something that I was familiar with. It took a little longer to get there because I didn’t feel secure or sure of my abilities to make that initial leap. What we knew is that we wanted to live here, we wanted to put down roots and we wanted to have a garden and chickens and it was like, okay, how do you afford to do all those things?
Luke: Then working for another farm, we met goats and knew we wanted to have goats and how do we make all these things work? We had to get creative. You have to be creative in the country. Most people who live rurally, whether they move from the city or have lived here for generations, wear multiple hats. They might be your plumber but they are also the rock star in the local band. People have all these different outlets that they use to express themselves fully. It is refreshing and you realize that that is what you have to do to as well. There are going to be times when you do this, do that, to sort of piece together a life and a living in the country.
How did your friends and family react to your move and your new business venture?
Louisa: People love to come and visit us. There have been periods though when our friends have come to visit and they really questioned how hard we were working and whether it was worth it. They were worried about what it was doing to us emotionally to be working as hard as we have been. We appreciated that concern and it was definitely warranted and valid. As a result, we have really changed course this year, we are trying to have a more balanced business, instead of trying to grow and grow and grow. We have been working on finding a sustainable level of production that works for our farm. You can’t put a typical business growth model on a sustainable farm, it doesn’t work, and we are learning how much we can maintain without requiring a big upscale of our operation. Coming to terms with that has been really difficult but also totally necessary and really freeing at the same time. It is okay to not make tons of money. We didn’t set out to do this to dominate the candy business; we don’t want to be a candy factory.
Luke: Our friends have had different reactions. Our friends in California just think we are sitting on a hill somewhere in Vermont, because we are only in two stores out there. Our products are in a disproportionate amount of stores in Brooklyn so our New Yorker friends think we are a big deal. And when they come and see our operation they are confused, “you only have 40 goats?”
Is there a specific place or space that makes you feel inspired?
Louisa: I like going on a daily walk up the hill to remind myself of how beautiful it is here; how good the air smells and listening to the noises of nature. I like ending a workday that way because it refocuses and re-grounds me, making me feel like my choices in life that got me to this point were all good, even though there are swirling masses of other stuff and things to do in your mind.
Luke: My favorite spot is the studio in the back of the barn that we built. I love that you have to walk through the old barn to get to it. It is like a portal separating our home life from our work life.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Louisa: It is exciting to think about our future because so much can happen in a short period of time. I would really like our business to be more diversified. I feel like the goat is missing from the American farm product landscape. You go to a kitchen or gift store and there are cows, chickens, sheep and pigs, but no goats. So I would love to fix that problem. That is a personal goal, home wares. I honestly know nothing about the home wares world, but we knew nothing about goat milk caramels a few years ago. I know my garden is really important to me and I love flowers. I was doing a lot with flowers before we started farming and have always dreamed of having a dye garden or dried flower farm. So how that comes back into play, I don’t know, but I'm thinking about it. I am not interested in making a ton more food products. Food products are difficult because they are hard to scale.
Luke: We also want to start having more Farm Feasts. The end of last year we had this crisis moment when we really needed to change what we were doing. This year has been a trial year where we are focusing a bit less on our business and focusing some attention on our art and integrating that back into our daily existence, to the extent that it is possible. I hope that 3-5 years from now that experiment has been fully fleshed out. I started a children’s book about our beloved goat Gertrude, who has retired, because what does a goat do when she retires?