Gail Hobbs-Page has a lot to share. You sense it immediately, even separated by 100 miles over the phone. She’s quick and honest and sharp as a damn tack. And as the captain of the good ship Caromont Farm, she has to be. She’s seen the 8-year-old farm through hard times and come through it with a clear perspective she’s happy to pass on.
During our conversation, I learned that the name Caromont is an amalgam of Gail’s two homes, the Carolinas and Esmont, VA, a reflection of Gail’s cheese-making dictum, “Your cheeses have to be true to who you are.”
Our conversation was an informal, pleasant chat, southern and roundabout; and I tried to focus on participating in the conversation while simultaneously typing Gail’s every word. There was no way to get everything. Several other quotes can be found here. So, rather than attempt to patch together a formal interview, I’ve picked a sample from our discussion to share.
Why are so many farms making goat cheese in VA?
We’re not a milk state. Most of our dairies have gone out of business. The projects started in the state have been at-home, boutique businesses, cottage businesses – Goats R Us, Night Sky, Iron Rod – the bottom line is you have to have a certain amount of milk to sustain production, and goats just don’t get as much milk as cows, which fits a cottage business scenario. If you don’t have the space and you don’t make your milk and equipment efficient there’s a cap, and you can’t sustain the sales and the labor.
What we’ve tried to do is create a fluid milk source for Caromont within our own community. I don’t want to milk cows, but I’ve got a fella 15 miles down the road who milks the Jersey cows and brings it to me. It’s a big commitment to work within the regulatory aspects of fluid milk – It’s gotta be hauled a certain temp made into cheese within 3 days. You have to have a lock-solid commitment with somebody to do that. That’s difficult in the goat world. You have such a small herd. We’ve taken it past the cottage industry phase by creating our own fluid milk source. I can sell all the cheese that I want, but I can only make as much cheese as I have milk to make it.
In 2012, Caromont raised almost $40,000 via Kickstarter. How did Kickstarter change business for Caromont Farm?
Kickstarter completely changed everything. I had a piece of equipment that was 30 gal. We were trying to make cows’ milk and goats’ milk cheese. We would run that pasteurizer 7 days a week, sometimes 3 times a day. Wrong style of vat, couldn’t make cheese. It was so inefficient, we were losing so much yield because we weren’t able to cut the curd efficiently. We were spending more in labor, losing yield on milk I was buying – just a scenario for not making any money and working all the time. We would not be in business. The hemorrhaging was bad.
People are grumpy when things aren’t efficient when things aren’t humming. the mood of your product is reflected. those were dark days and, as the leader of the ship, I said ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do something right now or we’re not going to be doing this.’ I decided to get a new vat – 30 gal to 125 gal, which took us from 1 to 2 cheese rooms, meaning we could do bloomy rind cheeses and do more than one thing at a time. We also got a bolt tank for the regulatory piece. and our refrigeration is better – We can now chill our milk within minutes of harvesting.
We have pumps instead of buckets.
I’m a good southern girl, and I can turn a sow’s ear to a silk purse, but I couldn’t do it. I felt like it was smoke and mirrors. I felt like we were duping people. We were making cheese on a very 1-dimensional level. I challenged myself to take it to the next level, and that’s what we did. Cheese-making is not understood in VA – I mean the banks when I say that. We were turned down by big Virginia bank, but then local bank took a chance on us, and with Kickstarter, we raised $42,000 total. Almost 90% were local. they just wanted to see me stay in business. Hopefully we got that conveyed in the film. It was a serious time for our business.
(photo via Kickstarter)