Thursday, March 3, 2016

Bourbon Week

If you had talked to me on Wednesday last week, I would have told you
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. 

It's amazing how much your priorities in life can change. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

First Weekend Success

Well, we did it…and with some help from The Cowboy Posse, we did it with a bang!

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.
Photo credit Leslie Dice (Handy Crafts by AL vendor)

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.
Photo credit Leslie Dice (Handy Crafts by AL vendor

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
spring weather!!