Argyle Cheese Farmer: Creating a Legacy with Pursuit’s Help
Dave Randles and his brother, Will, are the proud owners of Randles Fairview Farm, a family dairy farm in Argyle, NY (near the Vermont border) that’s been in existence since 1860. The farm is also where Argyle Cheese Farmer – a specialty-foods business owned and run by Dave and his wife, Marge – is based.
Marge and Dave created Argyle Cheese Farmer as a way to expand the dairy operation into a more diversified and profitable business that they could pass on to their children or sell when the time was right.
Beyond the farm: Growing into new markets
Marge, whose professional experience includes accounting and financial planning, acknowledges that she’s seen many small businesses work hard for years to grow, but without the full support of family and no clear exit strategy.
“I think one of the most important things – especially if you’re in business with your spouse or partner or other family members, but even if you’re doing this on your own – is to ensure that your family is on board with you. When Dave and I started Argyle Cheese Farmer, we were already ‘empty nesters.’ We were committed to doing this together and you have to be, because you have to give it everything you’ve got. There are raw, tough days and if you don’t have your partner’s support, it can all fall apart. What got us through is that we’ve always had each other’s backs,” Marge says.
In 2007, they built a 1,200 square-foot steel building on the farmstead, “The Cheese House,” to be used as a processing plant. Soon after, they began offering fresh-made yogurts and added cheeses and buttermilk, highlighting their own farm’s dairy as well as milk sourced from other nearby farms. Through marketing, word-of-mouth recommendations and sales at farmers’ markets, their products were soon in high demand and regularly sold out.
Demand grows through the pandemic
As a food producer, Argyle Cheese Farmer stayed open throughout the waves of business closures. “We already had many of the safety protocols in place,” Marge says regarding the requirements for things like personal protective equipment, or PPE, and sanitizing. “For us, that was business as usual.”
At first, their business took a hard hit, because about one-third of their products are earmarked for distribution to New York City-area restaurants, bakeries and specialty shops. Soon, though, Marge admits that business grew significantly.
What changed, she thinks, is that there was a surge in interest for locally sourced and produced foods with minimal additives or preservatives. In addition, Marge found that as people ate at home more often, entirely new product lines opened up.
“We source produce, eggs and other goods from local farms and make those into quiches and meals that can be frozen and picked up or delivered to customers,” Marge explains.
Funding provides stability through the crisis
Marge admits that it took her and Dave a long time to be open to the ways in which financing could help them. “We’re pretty debt-averse by nature and we’ve typically just grown the business in ways that we can pay for outright, rather than take on debt,” she says.
She says that she and Dave had even considered selling the business in the past because they couldn’t meet demand and didn’t know how to move forward profitably, especially if they were self-financing their business’s growth. But, she admits, “Small family farms with limited production don’t generate a lot of interest and we would have had to sell for far less than the farm merited.”
About two weeks before the pandemic hit, Marge says that she and Dave purchased a building for an expansion that included a process-viewing area, an industrial kitchen and a retail shop, where the expanded offerings would include fresh cinnamon rolls, donuts, quiches, buttermilk and oat breads.
Their commercial bank, NBT Bank, supported the project but wasn’t able to fund it, so they introduced Marge and Dave to Pursuit. Their Pursuit team recognized that the SBA 504 loan could be a great fit for their real estate and renovation project. Then, with the onset of the pandemic-related closures, they made the decision to put the 504 loan application on hold while Marge and Dave waited to see how things would land.
“Still, we built out a small retail store in Hudson Falls and I’m still not sure if it’s the smartest thing we’ve ever done or the dumbest,” Marge laughs. “We’re busy all the time and we have our largest staff yet, with about a dozen employees.”
They also received an SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through Pursuit to help cover employee pay and other expenses and are in line for an Economic Impact Disaster Loan (EIDL) through the SBA. Marge also credits Nicole Scribner at Pursuit for introducing them to Pursuit’s veteran loan program, which offers a lower interest rate and for which they’re eligible for through Dave’s and their son’s service.
Getting assistance for future growth
With the SBA microloan and the veteran’s loan through Pursuit, Marge and Dave were eligible for Pursuit’s Consulting Corps services. They worked with Camille Nisich of Instant Equilibrium on the business’s social media presence and on growing email lists, as well as on a redesign of the website to highlight new offerings.
“As a former accountant and certified financial planner, I love that Camille encourages us to look at all of our marketing and advertising in terms of return on investment,” Marge says.
Looking to the future, Marge says, “The financial help that came about as a result of the health crisis has been great to keep us financially stable, but they’re not growth loans, so now we’re going to focus more on that aspect of funding.”
She also says they’re leveraging new opportunities, including a partnership with a major local producer, Ideal Dairy Farms, which gives their business additional financial support and industry clout.
“If I had the time, I’d love to write a thesis about how the pandemic affected small, local and artisan food producers. Overnight, we had to rethink our business plans and marketing strategies and quickly hustle to reach new customers. But it worked, for us and for many others, and now we’re busier than ever. It’s hard to keep up with demand!” Marge admits.
She sums it up, saying, “It’s been quite a ride, but we’ve got a dream and we’re going with it!”