Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Fishing for Answers
I’ve tried to write this post for the past month. I bet I’ve wrote out
the first paragraph 10 times, only to delete it and give up. I think
the season just leaves all of us mentally and physically drained. We put in so much time and effort into running the festival, there isn’t much left to run on after it’s over. I’ve felt uninspired, perhaps downright depressed.
Mason (my three year old son) decided he wanted to learn how to fish this week. His older cousin was at our pond fishing several days ago and Mason was instantly fascinated. Neither Robert nor I are fishers. We have both fished on occasion, but with no serious effort involved. Mason, on the other hand, is a serious fisherman.
We bought him an appropriately sized fishing pole and he was off. After some serious casting fails, along with several three year old meltdowns, I’m now proud to say that he can cast like a pro. He doesn’t know we took the hook off the line when it was evident he was going to catch himself or the dog. He’s happy as a clam to stand on the dock, and cast away to his little hearts content.
In the midst of Mason’s fishing adventures, I received some very bad and unexpected news from one of our suppliers (in the tune of a $10,000 unexpected bill). It feels like every time we get one step ahead, we take three steps backwards.
After the season is over, I think we all try to fill our schedule with fun non-farm related things to keep us going. Jen shows her horses, I’m showing a friend’s horse this summer, and we all enjoy camping. Robert enjoys hunting and college sports. Nic likes to play golf. And all the while, it feels like we are being dragged down with bad news about the business.
It’s almost come to the point where we are trying to decide if we put our personal lives on hold and discontinue our fun activities to keep the farm going. We keep thinking it can’t possibly get any worse. It has to get better. We all work at our “regular” jobs everyday to pay our bills and hopefully do a few fun things every now and then. We all work very hard for those fun moments. Are we just fishing without a hook?
Thursday, March 3, 2016
that the business was basically finished. It felt like we were at the point of no return. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and might have consumed quite a bit of bourbon, something I’m not known to do whatsoever. It didn’t help that I was going on little sleep, going
through the terrible threes with Mason (whoever invented the phrase terrible twos obviously hadn’t hit the threes yet), and was beyond stressed out.
It’s fairly common knowledge (at least locally), that Robert, Nic, Jenny and I didn’t inherit the farm under the best circumstances. The farm was owned previously by my parents. After some terrible things happened and a bad divorce between my parents, the 4 of us bought the business from my mother. It was basically a sink or swim situation, in
shark infested waters.
I won’t lie, at first we all had visions of grandeur. I imagined paying off my student loans in a few years and buying the new black Tahoe I’ve always wanted. Maybe we could afford to build Robert’s
dream garage and Jen could buy her Rolex horse.
Then reality hit.
The 2014 season hit us like a hurricane. While we had always been very involved with the festival, we were not privileged to internal aspects of the business. We quickly realized that some things that are vital to properly running a business weren’t established at all. I promise
I’m not bad mouthing my parents. They ran the business for 25 years and were successful with it. However, their way of doing things wasn’t necessarily the right way. Pesky things like general liability
insurance, workers comp insurance, payroll taxes and incorporation were non existent. Let me tell you, those things aren’t cheap.
On top of that, we had the coldest winter in almost 30 years. The trees need a freeze/thaw weather pattern, with warm sunny days and freezing nights. We were basically frozen solid all winter. We had the lowest syrup production level in the history of the business.
We ended the year feeling pretty low. We all decided that we had survived the worst possible scenario and came out the other end still standing. Jen and Nic made the decision to invest a substantial sum of their retirement account into the business to get us through the next
12 months. We kept saying it couldn’t possibly get any worse.
If the 2014 season hit us like a hurricane, the 2015 season hit us like a earthquake, tornado and a wildfire at the same time. The reverse osmosis machine on the farm was on its last leg. We had been
limping it along each season for at least 5 years, maybe 10. It was to the point where we could replace the membrane system for about $4,500 and still have a 25 year old machine on its last leg, or buy a new to us, gently used reverse osmosis machine for about $11,000.00. Thinking it wasn’t possible to have two terrible seasons in a row (it has NEVER
happened before), we pulled the trigger on the newer machine.
Then it happened. I think if hell could freeze over, it would have frozen on our farm. We were a solid brick of ice all year again. The trees were so cold that when we tried to tap, the tap holes would just
split. The aging tubing system was so brittle in the extreme cold it would just shatter when you tried to do anything with it. The week before the festival, we had several inches of rain with major
flooding. The rain was followed by a snow storm. We literally had a
river going through our vendor area and the parking lot was mud soup. The parking guys were hitching cars from the road, pulling them into parking, and pulling them back out when people were ready to leave. It was a nightmare.
After the season was over in 2015, we talked about closing. We were in
debt up to our eyeballs.
We somehow managed to scrape the money together to try one more year.
We had strong wholesale sales throughout the year which helped
tremendously. We were honestly so far in debt that we had to keep going just to keep making the payments on everything.
I felt like I was starting this season working towards the end. We worked so hard. The farm looks amazing. We have cleaned up brush piles, trimmed trees, re-painted signs, and everything is organized. I kept thinking in the back of my mind that at least it would look good
when we had to put it up for sale. The weather looked great for huge sap runs. I could feel a tiny bit of optimism bubbling up but I couldn’t even bring myself to even say it out loud that we might
We made it to the festival….barely. I was talking to Jen earlier this week about how much small bill change to get for the store this weekend. We were very short on change the first weekend and I told her I needed more than she gave me before to keep things running smoothly.
She said I gave you all I had. We had literally zeroed out the bank account to get the change for the first weekend of the festival and there wasn’t anything left.
Aided by the beautiful weather, we had record attendance at the first weekend of the festival. We sold EVERY single jug of syrup we had on the farm. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I still can’t
really wrap my head around how many people were at the farm. I’m not sure how we even fit that many people on the farm.
Visions of a new Tahoe and a dream garage have been replaced by keeping the farm. We aren’t down to our last dime anymore, but it’s still going to be a struggle. It’s been a huge learning process for all of us. I know I’ve made my share of mistakes. I know running the
business has pushed all of us to our limit. It’s been hard on us financially, it’s been hard on our marriages, and it’s been hard on our families. We still all work full time jobs in addition to running the farm, I don’t have a shiny, new, black Tahoe and my student loan balance gives me a small heart attack.
I’m still not sure what the future will hold 5 years from now. Hopefully I can read this post 5 years from now and have a good laugh. I’m perfectly content with my small SUV I bought last year. It’s not my Tahoe by any means. However, it’s safe and reliable and gets me from point A to point B everyday.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The first weekend of the festival was a success. We anticipated a
large crowd due to the wonderful weather conditions. Needless to say,
our expectations were greatly exceeded. By our rough estimate, we had
15k people at our little farm in two days. Our estimated annual
attendance is on average 10-12k over all four days. I think we broke
every record we had.
Each year, I place one large order for everything in the store for all
4 days of the festival. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m usually
pretty good at ordering the right amount of stuff (Jenny helps a lot
also!!). We usually place a small order in-between the two weekends if
we are especially low on something, but it’s usually for things like
more tasting spoons, maple sugar if we use a lot of cotton candy mix,
and perhaps some more trash bags. When 90% of my inventory sold on
SATURDAY, I was slightly panicked. I’ve been scrambling all week to
get everything re-stocked by this weekend. The items we don’t make
ourselves, or have a local contact who makes the items for us are on
expedited shipping orders. Most of the orders will arrive on Thursday
or Friday this week. I foresee a couple of sleepless nights on Thursday and
Friday getting everything ready.
By the numbers, we went through almost 30 gallons of cotton candy mix,
2,520 maple cream cookies, 320 pounds of maple nut treats, 3 cases (72
packages) of maple candies, 250 pounds of granulated maple sugar (this
does include what we put in the cotton candy mix), 600 maple suckers,
and many more things too numerous to list. The store was honestly
totally empty by the end of the day Sunday. We had a few t-shirts
left. At least inventory was easy!!
We expect to have a much larger supply of syrup this weekend.
Partnering with our local Amish community, and with the syrup we have
made this week, we expect to have plenty of syrup this weekend. We
apologize to our customers who weren’t able to make a purchase. We
sold out so quickly. It’s always part of being a smaller producer, and
the festival seems to keep growing exponentially each year.
The vendors seemed to do well. We had quite a few new faces this year
and I feel like they were all extremely happy with their experience.
Russell, the owner of the Italian food truck, sold out of everything
on Saturday and had to make a late night run to GFS on Saturday night.
We had several other vendors who sold out of all of their items on
Saturday and had nothing left to sell on Sunday. Not a bad problem to
have in my opinion!
The Cowboy Posse was a HUGE hit. Each performance drew a huge crowd.
They will be attending this weekend as well, with shows at 12 and 3pm
each day. I hope they become a permanent fixture at the festival. We
had a pitch in dinner with the group on Saturday night and they are an
exceptional group of people.
The festival this coming weekend is Saturday, March 5th and Sunday,
March 6th. We are open each day from 9am-5pm. The kitchen serves
breakfast all day, and serves lunch from noon-5pm, or while supplies
last. The vendor area and Children’s Activity Center will be open from
9am-5pm and we offer free guided tours of our farm every hour on the
hour from 10am-4pm. The weather is looking wonderful for the weekend.
Perfect opportunity to come out to the farm and enjoy some beautiful
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Monday, February 22, 2016
Imagine that you are 17 years old and a Junior in high school. You
leave your warm bed at 6am on a Saturday, get dressed, and go to work
in an old, cold barn. Instead of catching up on sleep or spending time
with your friends on the weekend, you stand on a cold concrete floor,
serve 3,000-4,000 people a meal, and go home covered in pancake
batter, maple syrup, and bbq sauce. This is not a plot from a new
reality show coming out, but it is the reality for the youth Group at
Grace Lutheran Church in New Albany, Indiana.
Every year we turn our Sugarhouse, an old, cold, non-insulated barn
into a restaurant for the 4 days of the Maple Syrup Festival. Battling
the weather, frozen water pipes, and frozen fingers, the Grace
Lutheran Church youth group will help prepare and serve the delicious
pancakes, waffles, maple BBQ chicken and pork to our festival
attendees. It’s hectic, it’s hard work, but you won’t meet anyone
without a smile on their face.
The kitchen and food service staff are volunteers from various local
charitable groups. It started 25 years ago with the CARE women’s group
from Salem, Indiana, serving a simple pancake breakfast. Over the
years, groups have come from the Henryville Community Church, Bunker
Hill Christian Church, Fisherman’s Paradise Men’s Group, as well as
many others. Our menu has changed from pancakes and syrup, to a full
breakfast and lunch/dinner menu.
This is the second year for the Grace Lutheran Church youth group
volunteering in the kitchen. Last year (2015), the proceeds from the
kitchen service were used for renovations to the youth room at the
church. The group purchased new furniture and supplies, making the
youth area an inviting haven for fellowship and community activities.
This year, the youth group is fundraising for a Haiti mission trip in
the summer of 2017. The youth group, along with several adult
chaperones from the congregation, will travel to Haiti to help with
the local vacation bible school program, volunteer at the local
hospital, and help with several construction projects. The cost of the
trip is $2,000-$3,000 per person. While you enjoy a delicious meal,
you are not only helping your local community, you are helping fund an
outreach program across the world. On average, we donate
$7,500-$10,000 (or more!) per year to the groups who staff and run the
kitchen and food service area.
In addition to the kitchen area, the candle making activity in the
Children’s Activity Building is run by several volunteers from the
Operation Christmas Child program. This program is the largest
Christmas program, filling shoeboxes with goodies and helpful items to
needy children around the world. 100% of the profit from the candle
making activity is donated directly to this wonderful organization.
Lastly, the parking attendants this year will be volunteers from our
local high school football team (Go Musketeers!!). The football team
is fundraising for new equipment this season. A donation will be made
to the team in exchange for their hours worked at the festival. They
might even get in a weekend workout if the parking is muddy!
Monday, January 25, 2016
nothing. The weather forecast was calling for up to 18 inches of snow.
Then it changed to 6-8 inches, then 1-4. The farm got less than three
inches total. People to the east of the farm weren’t as lucky. Most of
the east coast is completely covered right now. I live about 10 miles
from the farm and we got about 4 inches.
We had a smaller than normal tapping crew this year. We sent out three
teams on Saturday and two teams on Sunday. We have changed our tapping
equipment this year. We are using the battery powered DeWalt drills
instead of the large gas powered drills. The guys are so happy. The
new drills are extremely light weight compared to the gas powered
drills. They bought extra batteries and swapped the batteries out over
lunch. The tapping crews were all extremely happy with the new drills
and the drills and batteries are working great.
We aren’t completely finished tapping yet. We have finished the middle
hill of our sugarbush and we are almost finished with the back hill. I
think one more full day of tapping and we will be done. The weather
looks AMAZING for sap weather.
With two poor years in 2015 and 2014 due to the extreme weather
conditions, we are praying for a good year this year.
few small projects. Jen and I went over our to-do list on Saturday and
we only have three pages of stuff left to do. I feel like we are doing
a great job this year getting all of our jobs finished. Most of the
things we have ordered for the store have arrived. I am going to print
price labels this evening and start working on pricing all of the
I’ll let everyone know how the sap runs this week. Keep your fingers
and toes crossed!!