Awards September 03 2015, 147 Comments
The American Cheese Society held its annual convention this year in Providence, Rhode Island, just a tome's toss from us here in Hubbardston, MA. As usual, the convention was held during the last week of July, a week nearly guaranteed to be about as hot and sticky as it gets, no matter where in the country it is held. This year was no exception in that regard, with temperatures well into the 90s and very humid. What was exceptional was that this year I was somewhat unwittingly conscripted to lead a tour of the "Award Winning Producers" in Central Massachusetts, a group consisting of Ruggles Hill Creamery (www.ruggleshill.com), Robinson Farm (www.robinsonfarm.org) and us.
Now, I don't know how many people in this country would pay money to be herded through the barns, pastures, milking parlors and make rooms of tiny New England farms on what proved to be the hottest day of 2015. But the A.C.S. managed to round up 40 of them. Even more surprising, the entire group not only survived the experience, but actually seemed to enjoy it. My only regret is that I failed to take any pictures (To be fair I was concerned they might end up as evidence in some sort of proceeding). What I came away with was a new admiration for the tenacity and enthusiasm of the cheese makers and purveyors that have invigorated this industry so much over the last two decades.
The highlight of the A.C.S. Convention each year is the Judging and Competition Awards, in which this year more than 260 cheese makers submitted some 1700 products for evaluation and prizes. This year Westfield Farm came away with 4 awards: First and Second place awards for the Bluebonnet and Classic Blue Log in the External Blue category, First Place for our Hickory Smoked Capri in the Smoked category and a Third Place for our Wasabi Capri.
As always, it is a great honor and delight to be recognized by experts and peers for producing some of the best cheese in the country and we are all very proud. But the fact is that a more important competition goes on every day in stores and restaurants around the country. And when a consumer judges one of our products by favoring it over all the other wonderful choices confronting him, it's more rewarding than a whole drawer full of ribbons. Believe me.
Sorry to be so derelict in maintaining this blog. We've been busy.
A Fresh Start September 13 2014, 99 Comments
It has been a few weeks now (936 if anyone is counting) since Debby and I bought Westfield Farm. That was in September of 1996. Back then, computers were pretty much standard fare for businesses even our size (tiny) but they were generally relegated to internal accounting and inventory tasks. We did have email and an internet connection through AOL, but it was a novelty as much as anything else.
But it was during the month of transition, when we were living and working alongside Bob and Letty Kilmoyer and learning how to make the cheese and run the business that Bob suggested getting a web site for the company. “I think that’s going to be a big opportunity,” he told me.
Bob K had struck me as a pretty smart guy; he was a math professor with a PhD in a field far from farming before turning goat farmer, and one of the first things I did after he packed up his bags was to do just that. I don’t even remember the name of the e-commerce “shopping mall” that we signed up with, but it was one of the many Dot-Coms that sprang up in the ‘90s and either flamed out or sold out shortly thereafter. In this case, the site was eventually bought up by Yahoo! And it remains pretty much the same today.
I guess this is just a round-about way of saying we are making a major change in our web site and it’s about time. We have the same domain name: www.chevre.com for which we’ve been accused of being brilliant or prescient, when in fact we were just plain early. There were plenty to choose from in 1996. Our old host was never integrated into our accounting program, and frankly we’ve treated the web site more like a nuisance than an asset for a number of reasons that we probably shouldn’t go into here.
Why This E-commerce Site Will Not Threaten Amazon’s Dominance.
In the course of the last 18 years, several other web sites have been introduced and succeeded to a degree unmatched by ours, despite the clever domain name. Amazon, Facebook and Alibaba come to mind, all having achieved tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and valuation, while we consider it a good month when sales exceed a thousand bucks. There are a couple of reasons for this unfairness. One is that life is unfair; the other is that it’s difficult to sell goat cheese on the internet (although for all I know, Amazon’s already proved me wrong on that score). Maybe it’s just we who have a problem selling goat cheese over the internet.
Why Is It Difficult To Sell Goat Cheese Over The Internet?
The biggest problem we face is the cost of shipping a temperature-sensitive product to retail customers. Without getting into the weeds of thermodynamics, suffice it to say that the larger the item, the harder it is to change its temperature; i.e., to warm it up or cool it down. A big ice cube stays frozen for much longer than a little ice cube. A big enough mass of anything will maintain its temperature in the most extreme circumstances. Those enormous LNG tankers sail for weeks around the world filled with super cold liquid methane with virtually no refrigeration or pressure. It just keeps itself cold for the most part.
We ship 25 to 50 pound packages of cheese to retail stores all over the country and only rarely have a problem with warm arrivals. The cheese is packed in insulated boxes, of course, with varying amounts of frozen gel packs, and always within a couple of days, but the fact is the package usually has to be lost for a few days or subjected to blistering heat for it to arrive at a questionable temperature. Not so with a half dozen 5-oz pieces of cheese. There just doesn’t seem to be any practical way of keeping that small amount of product cold for two days when the ambient temperature goes north of 80 degrees. Even overnight can be an issue, especially when each extra 1-Lb gel pack can costs 4 or 5 dollars to ship.
What We’ve Learned About Shipping Goat Cheese
Over the course of some 30 years, we have learned a few things regarding the transportation of perishable products. Most of this experience is in shipping to wholesale accounts, which still account for 99 percent of our business, but it applies to retail traffic as well.
The first is that nobody likes expanded polystyrene (or Styrofoam, as it’s incorrectly called in the U.S.). It just takes up so much room: in our warehouse, on the truck, in the customer’s dumpster, in the landfill. Plus it makes this squeaky noise when you touch it that drives people crazy. If that’s not enough, there are good reasons to believe it’s a carcinogen. It is a good thermal insulator, though, and it’s very light and fairly rugged, so it makes a good packaging material. But we’ve done our best to get away from the stuff and have successfully experimented with combinations of Thermal-Core boxes and Insultote liners that provide similar or better R values and results.
The second is that trying to maintain a cold temperature with ice and insulation for more than 48 hours is pretty much a fool’s errand. If the product is still cool after that much time, the ambient temperature was probably not much of a problem to begin with. In any case, we decided that we would alsways stick to transportation options that called for delivery within two days. In UPS or FedEx terms, that’s a radius of about 400 miles for ground shipments, and Overnight or Second Day Air for all others. For destinations within about 200 miles, next-day delivery is pretty much guaranteed for relatively inexpensive ground service. We have also recently decided that any retail consignment going to a destination where the temperature is expected to exceed 80 degrees has to go overnight. That means for much of the summer, it’s Next Day Air to all destinations outside New England and the New York metropolitan area, and for the rest of the year it’s Next Day Air to the deep South and Southwest. This is difficult to enforce because it’s difficult to predict. We don’t want to charge more than is necessary on shipping services, but we do not want our customers to receive spoiled product. Nobody is happy when that happens.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we have new flat-rate shipping prices, regardless of the size of your order, which reflects the fact that it is easier to keep larger shipments colder. And the new web site, easy to use and fully integrated into our business software is going to enable us to pursue the retail market with enthusiasm. Look for gift packages including cheese serving accoutrements and crackers as well as incentives for our regular customers to buy even more of their favorites. I’ll also do my best to keep you abreast of new products and new ideas, as well as what’s happening around the farm. And I want to thank everyone for their support as we head into the holiday season.
On behalf of Debby, myself, and everyone at Westfield Farm, Welcome and Thank you.