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
survive.

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. 

3 comments:

  1. Yesterday I attended the Festival for the second year in a row and everything was PERFECT! The day started a bit chilly, but quickly warmed up so that strolling outside was a real pleasure. I can only imagine the work it takes to not only run the farm, but to organize and pull off a successful festival. From the yummy breakfast to the vendors and stocking the store, your employees and volunteers were great, especially the ones who helped me get me get my car out of the parking lot. Bravo!!!!

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  2. Loved reading your story, I can certainly relate to the stress, perhaps not on the level you all were experiencing, but well expressed, and with a well deserved reward for your all's diligence and perseverance. Wishing you all continued success! Very much enjoyed your, Jenny and LeeAnn's hospitality, looking forward to seeing you all again next year!

    Kevin Brodie
    Cowboy Posse

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  3. studioranch@hotmail.comMarch 11, 2016 at 6:00 AM

    Emily, you guys made it through. I had no idea that everything had been in such disarray. God Bless all of you and much more success.
    Pat

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