Out in the big bad world of consultancy and self employment, the consequences of different expectations can be significant and trusting your gut is invaluable. It just takes practice to know when to call it.
There are those that suggest there’s no room for the heart in business, and, while this is something with which I utterly disagree, there are times when the 3 way decision process of head, heart and gut get a little complicated. This sounds a little cryptic and not unlike an offal menu choice in a restaurant to boot? I will elaborate.
I have been waiting to work with a farm in Cumbria about which I’ve posted before. The whole process has not been straightforward from the get go. Someone with more experience than me would have cut their losses sooner. Someone with more experience than me actually did. It was they who put my name forward, thinking, in all fairness, that it would be an experience that I could learn from. I have indeed, but perhaps not in the way that any of us expected.
The farm itself is beautiful, with 18th century stone barns, horses and cows out on pasture, a tiny slate-floored butter-making dairy, wooden stalled milking parlour and the most picturesque of dairy cows, long eye-lashed Jerseys. For a potential cheesemaker there is a lot to excite the intellect and rev up the gut instinct as well. There are so few cows that cleanliness in the milking parlour is phenomenal, the animals are milked into a bucket with no lengths of pipework to require excessive pumping, or with difficult to clean corners. They want to set up a dairy and produce cheese. So far so good.
So in the winter, as work at Holker Farm was winding down and Martin put me in touch with them, why did I hesitate so long before calling? Certainly part of it was nerves – what if they say no? However, I was also unsure that we were on the same wavelength. This seems a crazy thing to consider before having actually discussed the project with them, but there was a niggle from the off. One of the farm owners was already connected with the food industry and involved in a product that, for most people, has a great reputation. But, the rareified foodie atmosphere I’ve been involved with due to Neal’s Yard and the early days setting up Borough Market has either made me the worst kind of foodie snob, or exceptionally discriminating on quality. I do hope that it’s the latter, although one of my oldest friends, Elaine Macintyre, thinks I should start up another blog called Foodie Bitch after watching Saturday Kitchen with me a couple of times and hearing my running commentary! Did I want to make cheese with someone whose quality aims were to get into Booths and Waitrose? Or did I want to see it on the Neal’s Yard shop counters and being sold with the full enthusiasm of their wholesale sales teams into some of the best restaurants and shops in the country and across the world? And at the end of the day could I afford to discriminate anyway? I did have to earn money after all.
As it turned out, the Head said, ‘Get involved and get a job’. So I met them. Things seemed positive and there was a lot to like about the farm and the cows and their plans. But the work wasn’t immediate, not even on a developmental basis before planning permission. So I moved away from Cumbria and we stayed in touch.
Planning permission for them has been a royal nightmare. While waiting has also been frustrating for me, I am hugely sympathetic to the agonies they’ve been through with its attendant stress and emotional roller coaster. But all this time, I wasn’t making cheese.
Head began to say ‘Get another job’.
I began work on my CV and as it was a good 16 years since it had been dusted off to get a job at Neal’s Yard Dairy, as a mere lass, that was a project in itself.
Heart however said ‘Hang on. If it does work out it at this farm, it would be so great. Look where you’d be working. Look where you’d be living. Look what great milk you’d be working with.’
Gut was indecisive – there were things to like, but it was still not quite sure…
Planning permission got worse. Communication dwindled. I was in Cumbria, went in to see them and found out a few key dates to contact them on for further information. They still wanted to make cheese very much but they were having a stressful time fighting with the administrators of the Lake District National Parks over Open Days, a key part of their business plan and marketing strategy.
Back home again, Gut went from indecisive to negative. Head was checking for jobs online. Heart was still holding out but getting talked down.
At this point, they got in touch and said, let’s make some trial batches. I booked in a weekend and travelled up to make cheese. I made 3 cheeses and left them with instructions on how to look after them in our Heath Robinson adaptation of their old butter dairy. I knew it would take a few goes to get something worthwhile. Unfortunately they didn’t. Then, into the bargain, the planning permission struggle took a turn for the worse.
On the eve of my next visit, I was told they wanted to cancel or postpone. Too late, the hotel room was booked already. At 10.30 the night before I was due to drive up, we agreed to have another trial make with them uneasy about the cost. Gut wanted to back out by this point, but the agreement had been made. Head rationalised that it was employment and experience and would be a good thing. Heart was happy to be back there again and enjoying itself in Cumbria and ladling curd – both things that please it immensely. I made 6 cheeses this time (more milk) and went home.
About 3 weeks later as it comes time to pay the second invoice for hours worked, Gut finally emerges the winner. I should have let him argue louder and earlier.
The farmers are stressed, fed up with all the obstacles in their path up until now, physically exhausted with farming in the evenings and weekends on top of full time jobs plus family and emotionally and mentally knackered too. Finding that 2 batches in, they don’t yet have a cheese they could put on sale has been a knock back that leaves them distraught and dissatisfied. For me, it’s only to be expected that after making a mere 9 cheeses, you haven’t finalised the process and recipe yet. Particularly so, when it all has to be done while camping in a room they normally use for other things. But, I suspect, that’s not what they want to hear.
I may be aiming at making something more challenging than they are comfortable with. I could have chosen something easier to make. They may just be a little too used to an easier or more automated process of food manufacture. Less hands on, less hand made and more standard. At the end of the day getting partisan about things doesn’t help any of us.
I have suggested someone else for them to work with who has vastly more experience than me. Gut says this is probably a better fit for them as they are new to the whole farming business, never mind cheesemaking too. They can find an easier, less stressful cheese to make and employ someone local. I can find part time work and put my cheese-directed energies into another dairy with whom I’m working. It’s time to cut losses and move on. Heart has been told to stuff it.
With the new dairy, Gut, Head & Heart are all in accord. From the very beginning, Gut, in particular has felt this was the right fit. Heart remains a little wistful about life in Cumbria and will miss how exceptionally beautiful it is there, but it will also love the hills, woods and fields of Oxfordshire and especially the kites and birds of prey swooping high above.
I still believe strongly that business should be about heart as well as head and gut instinct. A business without heart is something I can’t work for, especially if it is my own. At the end of the day, profit and money are not enough. I don’t think any artisan food producer feels differently. But it can lead you astray if you listen to it for too long and it knows how to sing that siren song.
A business isn’t just about intellect either. My head can rationalise anything to myself. It can take up any position it chooses and argue convincingly, even if, a second ago, I was arguing for something completely opposite. An intellectual, unemotional analysis and presentation are valuable but they can be twisted whichever way you want. There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
Instinct, at the end of the day, is the most valuable tool I have. Evolutionarily it’s there to keep me alive, safe and away from danger. A few months wasted on a cheesemaking project that hasn’t come to fruition is hardly the greatest danger I’ve ever faced, but in the modern world, that’s the sort of thing my instinct has to work with. Gut my old friend, I will listen to you more in future.
Hmm that too sounds like ordering off a restaurant menu. The analogy works right to the very end.