Chucking the cheese dream
Becoming a small farmer is an entrepreneurial dream for some people. But when the dream comes true — even when it’s successful — the reality can be quite different from expectations.
By Dean Borg.
Consider Mark Armstrong and Barbara Grant, both in their 50s, who launched Acoustic Farms Dairy about three years ago.
"When you say farmstead cheesery, it sounds so homey and so small and it’s Ma and Pa,” Grant said. “And that’s what I desired was a wonderful life with my husband where we worked side-by-side. We’re draft horses hitched together for life. And it’s a wonderful pull.”
But it didn’t quite work out that way. Partly because the 80-acre micro-dairy cheese-making business near Springville, Iowa, grew so quickly.
“We started with Alice, our first cow. And before we knew it we were milking 30-some cows,” Armstrong said.
Those cows —the petite golden brown Jerseys with big brown eyes producing butterfat-rich milk — became like family. The cheese itself was award-winning. Customers at farmers’ markets and some grocery stores were buying everything Acoustic Farms was producing.
“It consumed our time,” Armstrong said. “Between milking twice a day, making cheese four days a week, doing deliveries, marketing, doing demos, We did farmers markets on the weekends. I would go one way, and Barbara would go another. And we simply had no time left to enjoy each other.”
He asked Grant if she wanted to quit.
“It hadn’t occurred to me. I was too busy to even think of the possibility,” said Grant, adding that hiring help was out of the question, she said, because she didn’t want to give up quality control.
So in early October, they made their final cheese and sold the Jersey cows.
"I cried like a baby when they left. I was so close to them. They were like big dogs. Imagine having 35, 36 big dogs that you played with every day, day-in, day-out, twice a day,” Armstrong said. “Then they got in the truck and left.”
And what about the Acoustic Farms dream?
“We’ve done it. We’ve gone out on top,” Grant said. “We have time with each other, which is so exciting right now. And who knows what the future will hold?”
Dean Borg reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out harvestpublicmedia.org.