Back in August, I had a meeting with a USDA, Farm Services agent that I met during farm school this summer. She floored me with her support and steady encouragement. That meeting felt like both validation and confession, to walk into a public space with a stranger and declare your goal to do something as foolish as open a small dairy and creamery and make cheese to offer out to the food world. I walked in wary of the hand cut, misshapen heart pinned to my sleeve but left feeling like these ideas knocking around my head are anything but ridiculous. Definitely not ludicrous. Possibly attainable. It was a scary good day.
She sent me off with a packet of homework, most notably, that I create a business plan rough draft which is the first, required step of their process not only to weed out the starry eyed dreamers from the realists, but also because – you know – you really, really need a business plan. It was gasoline on the embers, and I spent the rest of late summer and early fall researching equipment prices, production volumes, potential yield per product, market prices. This was a valuable exercise and one that will continue for the duration, probably. But the most valuable aspect of this planning was the way it hooked Jeremy into a process that has been, up until this point, fairly solitary. He took my basic numbers and scribbles and turned them into a sophisticated spreadsheet with interconnected formulas that spits out new outcomes with one keystroke. As usual, he’s a real damn handy guy to have around. This week we celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary and the verdict is officially in: I’ll keep him.
Armed with our spreadsheets, my “Dairy Notebook” (already frayed at the edges), and a folder stuffed with floor plans, recipes, loan documents, and equipment specs – we walked into the USDA office yesterday unsure of the outcome. She greeted us with the same warm enthusiasm I have learned to expect from her. I handed over my numbers with a shaking hand, but she flipped through the pages, asked a few questions, jotted down some notes and finally looked up to say, “This looks great. Very complete. Tell me exactly how I can help you today to get where you want to be this year.” I noticed Jer shift forward in his seat out of the corner of my eye, “Um, we sort of thought you’d want to punch some holes through this plan.” She smiled back and explained that the exercise we completed is a first step to see if we’re serious. “You’re serious,” she laughed, “and I think you’re ready for the next step.” The meeting lasted an hour. We talked about her work with some other, like minded businesses in our area, and – like last time – she was incredibly positive. She gets to help farmers start somewhere and turn their paper plans into pasture and food. That sounds like a pretty wonderful job, if you ask me.
We walked out into the parking lot, a bit dazed by the overwhelmingly positive reception since we were both certain our spreadsheets would be met with hysterical laughter. “Well shit,” Jer said, “this could really happen,” he smiled feebly. Maybe turned a slight shade of green, or maybe it was just the light, but he had the same vague, tint of “sick” I remember when it was clear we were finally going to build our house. There is still a sizable mountain to climb, the least of which is completing loan apps and understanding whether we will, ultimately, work with the USDA to get this project off the ground. So, you know, fingers crossed and all that.
Next week I’m up in north Texas for a cheese class and, in preparation for that trip (my first time away from the animals since they had babies. Whoa.) Jeremy has taken over evening milking duties (a round of applause, please). Last night over dinner, we had a serious discussion about “which goat’s teat is the easiest to milk” that involved not only ranking teats, but talking about the pros and cons of each in total seriousness. It’s the kind of conversation that would – in any other lifetime – be fantastic fodder for sketch comedy, but here and now, is normal as talking about a work meeting. Sitting at Jolene’s side last night milking, I heard him ask her, “How is your dinner?” as she buried her nose in the trough of grain she’s fed on the stand. Who knew “animal husbandry and co-dairy planner” would rank so high on my list of man-requirements? It’s a good thing you’re so adaptable, Jeremy, because – slowly but surely – it appears there will be a lot more animal milking in our future.