Interesting in 2011: Sarah Gordon

sarah gordon farmiemarket

Sarah Gordon and FarmieMarket's delivery van.

All this week we'll be highlighting some of the interesting people we've gotten to know over the past year.

We have a lot of respect for people who start something new from scratch. And that's just what Sarah Gordon did last year when she launched an online farmers' market connecting farms and customers in Albany County. Even more impressive: she's figured out how to grow it -- this year Sarah expanded the concept to become FarmieMarket, which includes farms and customers in all four of the Capital Region's core counties.

The idea for FarmieMarket comes from a very personal place for Sarah: her own family's farm in Knox. After using her digital savvy to help grow the family's grass-fed beef and hay farm, she realized she could also help other local family farms trying to carve out a spot in the market. This isn't just a business -- it's a cause. And a worthy one. Think about it: for every local family farm that's able to find its place in the modern world, there are ripple effects: open space preservation, economic development, better tasting food.

So, it's safe to say we're impressed. And we think after you hear a little bit from her, you will be, too.

You made a big jump this year -- from serving just Albany County to all four core counties of the Capital Region. How's it worked out? How's business?

I'm glad to say that business is growing, and I've witnessed a huge increase in community recognition of the FarmieMarket brand through my marketing and outreach efforts. Sales are doing extremely well in Albany and Schenectady counties, and I'm seeing growth in Saratoga County. Rensselaer County has been a bit more difficult to find my niche, and I think it's a bit of a tougher climate for local food businesses like mine as evidenced by the recent closure of the Pioneer Food Co-op.

But, overall things are moving forward, and I am blessed to be making a modest living doing honest, meaningful work just like my farmers. We're in it together.

What are some of the challenges you've faced along the way? How'd you solve them?

Starting a business is not easy, especially in this economy. My biggest hurdle has been convincing people to pay a premium for their food when so many people are feeling disenfranchised by the suffering economy. I focus a lot of my messaging on empowering people, and reminding them that as consumers they call the shots. Every dollar we spend gives us the opportunity to make a choice to support the large corporations that have come to control the modern economy, or to support our friends, families, and neighbors by supporting local businesses that offer locally-provided services and locally-made goods.

Food purchasing is the most fundamental example of this opportunity to incite positive change. We have to eat to survive, and we have the opportunity to influence the economy through our daily food purchases. According to Cornell University, every dollar spent with small farms multiplies 3 to 4 times in the local economy. So, if each of the 318,000 households in the Capital Region diverted just $100 of their monthly grocery budget from shopping with corporate conglomerate supermarkets to shop with local farms, the total growth in the local economy would quantify to $1.34 billion. That's enough to offer each of the 29,700 unemployed individuals in the Capital Region a $45,000 per year job!

People want change, and they can make a difference by voting with their dollars and their forks. When you look at the numbers this way, it's easy to convince people to pay a premium for premium food because they will also earn social returns on their investment.

One of the things that impresses us about you is the way you've jumped into the challenge of finding a way to help something that's traditional and close to your heart -- the family farm -- become sustainable in the modern world. What sort of advice do you have for people who are also facing that sort of challenge?

When I started FarmieMarket, I was one year out of completing my master's degree. Despite having 10 years of experience in my field and a life of experience on the farm, I was grossly underemployed (like so many recent graduates). So, I had to get creative on how I was going to make ends meet -- I was able to fall back on my unique skill set and build a business from it. I put together my outreach skills, artistic abilities, computer savvy, background in sustainable and ecologically-economic thinking, and knowledge about farming and food to create a business that filled a niche. I stuck to what I knew, and because it's also something that is near and dear to me I am continually determined to keep working on it.

Today, we are all so focused on being offered a job by someone else, rather than just doing what we're good at and finding a way to make it profitable. Everyone has a skill of some sort. So be creative, think hard, and find a way to put your skills to work for yourself.

I guess my advice to those that are in the dire straights of unemployment and underemployment would be to think creatively about what skills you have to offer to society and what you care about, and create a place for yourself. There are hundreds of hidden opportunities out there, especially in the new e-economy. Before the industrial revolution, people didn't have out-of-the-home jobs; they didn't depend on paychecks; most were home industrialists or skilled service workers. Today, we are all so focused on being offered a job by someone else, rather than just doing what we're good at and finding a way to make it profitable. Everyone has a skill of some sort. So be creative, think hard, and find a way to put your skills to work for yourself. I think that if you work really hard on something you are truly passionate about, you simply won't allow yourself to fail.

The word "farmie" is a play on "foodie." As you define it, it's like being a foodie, but even more so -- interested and concerned about small farms and how they grow food. We can sort of imagine people bragging about knowing which row in the field their carrots came from (southeast, morning sun, good drainage). How far do you think is too far on being particular about food?

I don't think you can ever know too much about where your food comes from, but I do realize that it isn't practical for everyone to know everything about the food they eat these days. I, too, have orange juice in my refrigerator, and I don't know the farmer that raised the oranges.

To me, there are three big things farmies should consider when buying their food: 1) food quality; 2) health; and 3) economic impact.

Personally, I like food from local small farms because it tastes better than most things at the grocery store, resulting from the incredible attention to detail small farms are able to afford each unit they offer for sale. Mountain Winds Farm's eggs have a brighter color in their yolk, and they stand up more when you scramble them. Eight Mile Creek Farm's greens are more crisp, fresh, and flavorful than anything I've ever bought at the grocery store. And, I only eat beef when it comes from Gordon Farms because it tastes so good and I know how much love my dad puts into raising his animals. All of these qualities are the result of a farmers' hard work perfecting their craft and managing the quality of their product from egg, calf or seed to harvest.

Beyond this, food raised according to organic practices is healthier. Healthy cows that don't live in a barnyard filled with a foot of mucked manure don't need antibiotics or hormones to keep them growing and healthy; they are healthy because they live in a healthy, natural environment and eat healthy, natural food. When you eat food raised the way nature intended, the health of the food will transfer to you, and your body will function the way nature intended. To me, it's no coincidence that diseases like diabetes and cancer have become so much more prevalent over the last fifty years, since the utilization of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically-modified organisms has become standard practice. When it comes to your body, you get back what you put into it.

Lastly, buying local from small farms just makes sense. It provides economic support to small family businesses, and sustains those farms so that the next generation will be able to have the choice to eat food that wasn't produced in a factory. When I buy food, I try to support farms that have their own goals that I want to help them achieve. I buy my breakfast eggs and maple syrup from Randy Grippin at Mountain Winds Farm so that he can purchase his new maple candy and cream equipment to diversify his family business's offerings. I just bought bacon for Christmas brunch from Baitholts Farm to support their goal of purchasing Ray Baitsholt's dad's farm from the family estate and permanently preserve their historic homestead as open farmland. And, I support my dad, my Aunt Pam and my cousin, Brian, so they can keep doing what they love to do -- farming. Buying food from small businesses is more that just getting what you need to feed yourself; it nourishes small businesses and our local economy for the benefit of everyone.

What's next? What are your plans for 2012?

I've dedicated 2011 to establishing the FarmieMarket brand as being synonymous with the idea of an online farmers' market brand. In 2012, I hope to advance brand recognition, and help more entrepreneurs out there learn from my business model to open more markets.

Currently, I'm putting together an educational series and designing something of a FarmieMarket Apprentice program where people can learn the ins and outs of running their own online farmers' market in their own area. This winter, I'll be working with entrepreneurs from beyond the Capital Region to establish their own markets and build a network of online farmers' markets so that people throughout the Northeast will be able to order food online from the farms most local to them and have it delivered to their door. Going into my third year of operations, I've learned a lot of tricks to the trade and have streamlined operations in a way that I think it will be an attractive opportunity people seeking to start a small, part-time home business that has real meaning.

Additionally, I have a new farm coming onto the market to sell goat cheese and milk that I am very excited about. I've been trying to source the right dairy farmer locally for quite some time now. I am extremely excited to bring these products to market, and look forward to getting our new, small goat dairy farm online following the final inspection of their brand new facility in early 2012.

Beyond this, I am working with some of my chef friends to cultivate new food products and develop FarmieMarket as more of a comprehensive grocery, offering breads, pasta, and prepared foods made from local ingredients.

This interview was conducted via email. It's been lightly edited and condensed.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Interesting in 2010
+ Interesting in 2009

photo courtesy of Sarah Gordon

Comments

This is an awesome idea for both farmers and customers - I love what you are doing Sarah!

Is this Sandy Gordon's daughter?

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