Don’t let age be a barrier to entrepreneurial adventure

Conventional wisdom says we should take big risks when we’re young because if things don’t work out, we’ll have time to recover.

But Debra Amrein-Boyes and George Boyes opted to try something new and different at an age when many are starting their retirement planning.

The Farm House Natural Cheeses is a huge success today. The couple can’t keep up with demand, their cheeses have won a slew of awards and Amrein-Boyes has written a best-selling book on cheese-making and been inducted into a prestigious French guild of fromagers.

But that’s now. A decade ago, the leap into making artisan cheese was fraught with risk.

“It was an expensive undertaking. For us to get our building up and get going, it was between $400,000 and $500,000,” says Amrein-Boyes.

“At various points, we would stop, look at each other, and ask, ‘are we still good to go on this?’ Our answer was always, ‘yes.’ ”

The couple’s story is inspiring, especially for those who have reached an age where risk seems, well, more risky. Amrein-Boyes, now 60, says she has four pieces of advice for anyone thinking of taking their farm in a new direction.

First, do it for love, not money.

They first thought of making cheese after their milk marketing board, then struggling with an excess supply of butterfat, reduced payments for fat-rich milk.

Amrein-Boyes, a prairie farm girl who learned cheese-making while living in Switzerland, was appalled at the idea of using fat-blocking feed additives. They were talking to their feed rep about grain blends that could lower butterfat, when her husband uttered the fateful words, “well, we could make cheese.”

After all, Amrein-Boyes was already a gifted amateur cheese-maker who knew classic Old World techniques for making wonderfully runny brie, creamy camembert and clothbound cheddar, a process that begins with gentle handling of milk to preserve butterfat quality.

“I had been working on my recipes in my kitchen and had a circle of friends who were my taste-testers,” she says.

“I certainly had a lot of support from them. They were saying things like, ‘I haven’t had cheese like this since I was in France. You have to do this.’ You can’t base your business plan on that, but it helped because we knew there was a market out there.”

The business plan was next, and her second piece of advice is to really do your homework.

In their case, it meant knowing food safety and licensing rules inside out and how that affected capital costs. Stainless steel equipment isn’t cheap. It also meant detailed cash-flow projections (aged cheddar isn’t sold the day you make it) to convince their lender that selling some quota for start-up capital was viable.

That’s standard stuff, but Amrein-Boyes’s next piece of advice might surprise you.

“You have to know what your personal philosophy is,” she says.

“Look at yourself, the world around you, and see how you fit in it. We believe in transparency, so we allow people to walk around our farm. They can see our cows and dairy goats and ask us any question they want. People want to be connected to their food, so we believe they should be allowed that.”

If that sounds a bit airy, it’s not. Their farm, near Agassiz in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, welcomes thousands of visitors, and every one looks through the large picture window to see Amrein-Boyes and her cheese-makers at work.

The taste of Farm House cheese, milk and yogurt is certainly key, but this transparency is the foundation of their marketing approach and based on the couple’s commitment to producing wholesome, natural food.

The final piece of advice speaks directly to those who wonder if the time for new things has passed.

“I had reached the middle of my life and was wondering if there was anything I wished I had done,” says Amrein-Boyes.

“I’d been thinking of going back to university, so I think this satisfied that need for a new challenge. It was the same for my husband because we’ve not only gone to different breeds of cows and added goats, but he’s changed his dairy operation to become so-called old-fashioned. He’s having fun and so am I.”

Local food, agri-tourism and a demand for specialized ag services has created a host of opportunities in recent years for starting a new on-farm enterprise. All come with some measure of risk, but that’s part of the fun, too.

And as Amrein-Boyes and her husband found out, any age is a good time to pursue new and exciting challenges.

Archived columns from this series can be found at Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada.  

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