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Published October 21, 2011, 08:02 AM

Iowa cheese-makers decide to pull the plug

SPRINGVILLE, Iowa — The brief, successful life of Acoustic Farms Dairy is a cautionary tale for those pursuing a new dream.

By: Dave DeWitte, Associated Press

SPRINGVILLE, Iowa — The brief, successful life of Acoustic Farms Dairy is a cautionary tale for those pursuing a new dream.

That caution: What will you do if it's more successful than you ever expected?

Mark Armstrong and Barbara Grant made their last batch of cheese recently at Acoustic Farms Dairy near Springville, burned out after just two years building a cheese dairy business from scratch.

The couple learned about micro dairy opportunities when they attended the Terra Madre Food conference in Italy in 2008. They began their own dairy the following year, but they didn't quite envision what lay ahead.

"The demand was just overwhelming," said Armstrong, who worked most of his life as a photocopier technician. "It just started snowballing. It went from four cows to six, 10, a dozen. Before you knew it, we were milking in the thirties."

Acoustic Farms cheese was something most consumers hadn't been able to find in stores at affordable prices, if at all. It was made fresh four times weekly in 100-pound batches in the summer months and twice weekly in the winter months.

The dairy's output consisted mostly of creamy mozzarella curds and Parma Blue, a flavor-packed Parmesan-blue cheese combination. The dairy's Fromage Blanc con Citron won a silver medal in the International All-Jersey Cheese competition, one of many awards the cheeses garnered.

Armstrong and Grant were serious about staying small and emphasizing quality. They milked and fed their own cows. They processed and packaged their own cheese. They marketed and set up tastings. They delivered to stores, and spent weekend mornings vending the cheese in area farmers markets.

Things reached a point where the dairy became their lives. It was time to scale up or get out.

Without significantly increasing their processing capacity, they couldn't afford to hire employees to help relieve them of their growing workload. But increasing their processing capacity meant borrowing money to invest in high-capacity equipment.

At midlife (Grant is 48 and Armstrong is 49) they didn't want to take on a big load of debt, Mark said, and they weren't sure they could devote the remainder of their lives to cheese.

Acoustic Farms' inability to scale with product demand is something that happens "all the time" in business, according to Curt Nelson of the Entrepreneurial Development Center of Iowa.

"Iowa is full of these businesses that hit the ceiling right where the capabilities of the person who founded it stop," Nelson said.

Nelson said business founders who want to scale a business and sell it upon retirement should typically include a transition plan in their business plan that provides a road map to growth, including needed investments and staff growth.

Turning over responsibilities is often a big hurdle for business founders, Nelson said, but it is necessary if they want to create a business enterprise that they can sell in order to retire. If all of the business' value rests in the work of its founders, he said, there's often nothing of value to sell.

Armstrong and Grant found the long hours of work in the dairy business was weighing on their relationship and health. Armstrong and Grant typically started their day before 4 a.m., and worked seven days a week. They were often working separately on different aspects of the business, and they had little time for leisure activities together.

"We figured out what was important, and it was time together," Grant said.

Grant said she liked the "people" part of the business. She found the hours spent actually making cheese to be lonely.

"The only thing I found that assuaged the loneliness was reading," Barbara said. "I could read for three or three and a half hours while I made the cheese."

The couple have tried without success to find someone to take over the business by buying their equipment, recipes and cows. They've sold a few of their milk cows, and advertised the remainder for sale. They have had limited interest in their dairy equipment. About 30 cows are left to sell, and they will miss them.

"We love our cows," Armstrong said. "They're just like big dogs. They follow you around and watch everything you do."

Now that the dairy is closing, Armstrong plans to do some custom hay production. The couple hope to catch up on their fishing, mushroom hunting and sleep while they make plans for their next venture.

Armstrong and Grant are overflowing with gratitude for their loyal customers, and will miss the connection they made with people who appreciate high quality cheese.

"We were doing a tasting at New Pi (New Pioneer Food Co-op in Iowa City," Mark said. "One woman, she actually started crying on the spot. She was from Bosnia. She said, "this (cheese) is home."

While they haven't decided what to do when they get back to work, Barbara is fairly certain it will be something in the local foods movement. She said the people she's met in the local foods movement have been overwhelmingly friendly, honest and genuine.

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