Cajeta. A time-honored tradition in Mexico. It is an irresistible caramel sauce made with fresh goat’s milk and pure sweeteners cooked in copper kettles. And it’s a labor of love, as it takes much time and precision to make this concoction. Since 2006, the family that owns and operates Fat Toad Farm has been offering a Vermont rendition of cajeta from their farm in Brookfield, VT. In fact, it all started when their daughter Josey returned from Mexico with this recipe, knowing they had lots of extra goat’s milk that could be made into this delectable dessert. Their first batches were gifted to friends and neighbors and received rave reviews and empty jars returned for more. At that point, Josey’s family, including her mother, Judith, her stepfather, Steve, and her sister, Calley, decided to turn their goat’s milk caramel into a flourishing business. Their story starts when their first batches of caramel sauce were sold at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market in central Vermont.
Judith Irving moved to Vermont in 1967 to attend Middlebury College. She fell in love with the state, and eventually joined forces here with her second husband, Steve Reid. Their combined family includes three daughters (Josey, Calley, and Hannah) and one son (Nick); they all lived in an old farmhouse surrounded by apple trees in Brookfield. Before she became a full-time farmer and producer of goat’s milk caramel, Judith spent many years working at Vermont Technical College, the Vermont Women’s History Project, and the Global Health Council. Steve was heavily involved with commercial real estate, but had spent time as a sheep farmer in his early years. Calley, a Sustainable Agriculture alum from UVM, was working in local schools. Josey moved on to become an acupuncturist, Hannah worked with Fat Toad Farm for awhile before moving on, and Nick spent many years working at Equal Exchange.
In 2005, Calley and Josey happened to both be living at home for a time and suggested that the family move towards self-sufficiency by growing more of their own food. The already large vegetable garden got bigger and a few goats, pigs and chickens were added to the mix. Once they had extra goat’s milk, Josey and Judith got started making the traditional Mexican-style caramel that Josey had learned about while living there. As the goatherd grew, the family team started selling caramel and chèvre to stores in Vermont. Soon, Judith, Steve and Calley realized that the only way to ramp up production was to increase their herd and quit their day jobs. With support from other area farmers, Steve’s experience with raising sheep, Judith’s experience with business, and Calley’s connections and education in the farm-to-plate arena, the business took off.
In my conversation with Judith, she told me that the success of Fat Toad caramel can be explained by three elements: high-quality ingredients; a long, slow cooking process; and many years of experience. Goat’s milk, cane sugar and other high-quality ingredients such as vanilla beans and bourbon are all that they need. They have purposefully chosen not to use preservatives, binders or any artificial ingredients. They create their magical flavor with sweet, fresh goat’s milk, a slow cooking process (often 6+ hours), lots and lots of stirring, and beautiful large copper kettles. This flavor could not come to fruition without many years of experience. Goat’s milk changes in composition from week to week, based on the natural cycle of a lactating goat. Thus, with protein and fat profiles constantly changing, the caramel production team must adjust heat, temperature, stirring, and ingredients to make each final product consistent for customers. It is truly a handmade, artisanal product that they take deep pride in. Calley oversees the production and, with the help of a small staff, they are able to meet the consumer needs in their original production facility right on the farm. Fat Toad has a following across the entire country and is a four-time national Good Food Award Winner. We hear that many people like to eat the caramel sauce right off a spoon, and, of course it’s delicious on ice cream, in coffee, on a pie or pancakes.
By 2016, the demand for their unique product had grown so much that they needed more goat’s milk and more time to focus on the business, so they made the hard decision to sell their eighty goats to Ayers Brook Farm of Vermont Creamery, in Randolph, Vermont, just eight miles down the road. They now source their milk from Ayers Brook, which allows them to focus solely on production, marketing, and sales while still accessing high-quality local goat’s milk and supporting the local agricultural economy.
Fat Toad Farm got its start in food co-ops and small specialty food stores around Vermont; Hunger Mountain Food Co-op in Montpelier was the first, City Market in Burlington and our own Brattleboro Food Co-op were also early supporters. Judith sometimes reflects on one of those early days, when she sat in the Hunger Mountain parking lot after a meeting and was just blown away that they loved the product and would sell it there. The family shops at co-ops often, and it was an honor to have their products sold in cooperatively-owned markets such as ours, and gratifying to know they were adding value to the local community. After a year of selling only to Vermont stores, Calley traveled down to Boston and New York City with a suitcase full of caramel to hand out samples and pricing sheets. They were pleasantly surprised how quickly things grew after that trip into what is now a national market. They still primarily sell directly to small specialty food shops, but also work with a few distributors that help get them into some larger stores.
What does growth look like for Fat Toad Farm? Judith said they want to continue to work with their strengths, like more direct sales to smaller stores and direct-to-consumer sales through their website. Maintaining and building strong local relationships with co-ops and other stores is very important to them. They have discussed the potential of moving to a larger, more centrally located production facility, but at this point, that level of investment is not necessary or desired. For now, they grow and change enough each year to keep busy, and, if they continue on this path at this pace, it will be manageable and allow them to have the life they want: growing gardens, spending time with grandkids and family, and traveling from time to time around our beautiful state of Vermont.
Join us on Tuesday, February 12th from 11am-2pm to taste Fat Toad Farm caramel sauce.