From Issue 2: Makers
Text by Kurt Timmermeister
Photos by Noah Fecks
My farm is grand: thirteen acres of pastures and cows on Vashon Island, off the coast of Seattle. It’s large enough that my fifteen cows can have a great life grazing on the lush grass; small enough that from the barn I can see to the far corners of the property. We milk these dairy cows twice daily every day of the year and make cheese and ice cream from that rich Jersey milk. For twenty-five years I have owned this farm, slowly improving the land and the buildings and the herd. It is my home.
When I started making cheese nearly a decade ago I wanted to sell as much as I could, and to sell it as far afield as possible. I wanted prestige. I sold to the largest grocers and best restaurants in Seattle and got a distributor to truck my cheeses beyond the city and to Oregon. I made a deal with a retailer in New York City and regularly overnighted them delicate parcels of my precious cheese. I flew East to sample my wares to the buyers and tastemakers of the biggest city in the country. It was important to me. My cheese won top awards, and I felt vindicated that I was a great cheese maker.
I looked into buying additional land that bordered my farm and tried to find ways to expand my pastures. I drew up plans for a larger make-room, looked into getting a larger cheese vat. And I increased the size of my herd. I wanted to compete with the largest cheese makers here in Washington State, and to be a player on a national level. My goal was to get bigger.
Then one day, something changed in me. I added up the costs: dues and fees to the national organizations for entering competitions, discounts on cheese I shipped across the country so that their final retail price was competitive with other cheeses after the shipping costs, and what it would realistically cost to expand my facility. These were high, but I figured that I could make it work financially if I really wanted to. But it all just seemed wrong. Wrong in my gut. My farm was never going to be big enough. I would never have enough milk or enough cows or a big enough vat.
So I gave up on that. I stopped shipping across the country and stopped supplying my distributor with cheese.
What I did instead was open a retail store in Seattle last year: Kurt Farm Shop. It’s small; tiny actually, just 280 square feet. At the Farm Shop we sell cheese both from my farm and other creameries in Washington State, but also ice cream that we make at the farm. And we sell at retail prices, not at wholesale. I do still have my local wholesale customers, and I continue to deliver to them, but the bulk of the business now is sold in the shop. The volume isn’t huge, but financially it works out.
When I talk to national media about my work, their first question is always, Will I ship my products nationwide? It’s what I should do, I guess, but I’m just not interested. I don’t want to have a room full of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap and ice packs and FedEx labels in my office. I despise bubble wrap. I don’t want to spend my days answering any more emails that I already do.
Seattle is in the midst of a development boom. Buildings are rising seemingly overnight, most with ground floor retail—and those developers need great retailers to occupy their spaces. It’s tempting to open a second Farm Shop. Or a third. Or a fourth. Other ice cream makers have done it with great success. It’s tempting to want to get the most online reviews, to have the most customers, to make the most ice cream. To make the most money. That’s what it is about, I think.
To make the most money.
But I like my days to be on the farm, making corn muffins for the guys in the morning; checking on the hay in the barn and the calves in the pastures. Or in the city delivering cheese to the restaurants and stores. Or standing behind the counter at the Farm Shop scooping ice cream for most appreciative kids. I love this shop just like it is. I love this farm just like it is. I like Mario and Eddie who milk the cows, and Tim who makes the cheese, and Shaun who churns the ice cream, and Jill and Sandra and K.D. who scoop the ice cream and sell the cheese. And I make a living. Maybe not by big city standards, but I can pay the bills and keep the place going.
I suppose it’s the American way that bigger is better. The goal of so many small businesses is to get large enough to be bought out for a crazy amount of money. My goal is to have a lovely life. Glory is good. Attention is good. When I won those awards I was entitled to put little gold stickers on my cheese. I bought a few rolls. I was proud of those silly little gold stickers. I doubt anyone ever really noticed them but me, but I thought they were important. It took a while to realize it was the cheese that was important. We make very tasty, high quality cheese, and I was fixated on the gold stars.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend on the Island. He’s a decade older than I am and we chatted about my buying more land. He knew what I was talking about; originally he, too, had tried to buy up all the parcels surrounding his home. And then one day he stopped. He’d recently sold off one of his parcels of land. His advice to me: “Sometime you have to grow up and realize that your dick is big enough.” It was sage advice, and I have taken it to heart. I may never have the biggest business, but it is grand. ///