October 8, 2014
Note: This is the first in a three-part series providing a closer look at some of this year’s Value-Added Producer Grant award recipients.
You can buy almost anything online: clothes, books, electronics. And now, you can add local food to the list.
FarmieMarket—an online farmers market in New York’s Capital Region—is bringing local food purchasing into the Digital Age, both improving access to fresh local food and giving local producers an economic boost.
FarmieMarket is one of 247 farm businesses in 46 states to receive a Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Office. The $24,490 grant will help the online market expand its customer base and geographic distribution of local food products.
After getting her Masters degree from the University of Vermont in 2008, Sarah Gordon found herself back at home in New York, searching for work in a not-so-welcoming economy. At 25-years-old and “pretty adventurous,” she took the leap and started her own business. With a $5,500 start-up loan from the Albany Chamber of Commerce, Gordon began her online farmers market adventure with the Heldeberg Market, serving one county in 2010. Once demand grew for the online market, Gordon expanded to a four-county region, and FarmieMarket was officially born.
FarmieMarket may not have been started until just a few years ago, but Gordon has a history of marketing local food products online. Raised on a grass-fed beef farm in Knox, New York, Gordon spent time marketing her family’s products using social media.
“One of the big reasons I started FarmieMarket had to do with my own experience as a farmer in the market,” Gordon said. “It was really difficult as a small family farm. We raised our own hay crop and that meant we spent a lot of time on the tractor. It’s really tough to get away to a market, especially when you can’t guarantee you are going to make enough money to get off the tractor.”
“My goal in starting FarmieMarket really started from the farmer perspective. How can you easily reach a broad audience of people, keep farmers on the farm and leave marketing to someone who specializes in it, but make it easy? Marketing online just makes a lot of sense for farmers and it keeps them in the field.”
FarmieMarket offers a wide range of products from 40 local producers. At one point this summer, consumers on FarmieMarket could choose from 197 types of produce, but according to Gordon, the market is pretty evenly split in the types of products it offers. Everything from tomatoes to goose meat to honey to berries has made an appearance on the site.
FarmieMarket may be helpful for farmers when it comes to easily expanding their customer base, but consumers appreciate the convenience of a one-stop shop for local food as well. In its first year, the online farmers market served 500 customers, growing by 43 percent in its second year, 24 percent in its third year, and 14 percent in its fourth year.
“There are all kinds of consumers in the marketplace and the traditional farmers market doesn’t necessarily capture all those potential customers,” Gordon said. “There are people who are housebound, people with busy schedules who just can’t make it to the market, people on vacation. FarmieMarket really helps to capture the entire demographic of people who want healthy local food.”
About the VAPG Program
Launched in 2000, the VAPG program puts money in farmers’ pockets for adding value to their products. For example, farmers earn more money selling wine than grapes, or turning milk into ice cream or cheese. The term “value-added” can also include unique production characteristics, like organic vegetables or grass-fed livestock. The program awards both planning and working capital grants for business ventures.
Since its inception, the VAPG program has endured a roller coaster ride of increases and slashes in federal funding. In the 2002 Farm Bill, the program enjoyed $40 million in annual funding, but that number was cut to a $15 million five-year lump sum and $40 million in discretionary funding in 2008. In 2014, funding increased significantly to a $63 million five-year total, but still falls short of earlier funding levels.
In 2014, funding for the VAPG program came from 2013 and 2014 fiscal year Appropriations Bills. The 247 grants totaled nearly $25 million to support value-added production in 46 states.
Getting the Grant and Next Steps
Gordon, who previously worked as grantwriter, first applied for a VAPG for FarmieMarket in 2012. She received plenty of feedback on her application, but no money. She was encouraged to reapply for the 2014 cycle by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and, in mid-August, FarmieMarket walked away with its first VAPG.
The grant will be used to help the online farmers market continue to expand its geographic base, take on more producers, and reach more consumers. In particular, Gordon is using VAPG funds to start implementing technology to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) online. Once the technology is in place, FarmieMarket will begin marketing efforts to reach the 85,000 people in the Capital Region who benefit from SNAP EBT credits.
“So many people living in urban and rural food deserts don’t have access to transportation to go grocery shopping,” Gordon said, “so if we can accept those benefits and get food delivered to their door, it helps to not only get healthy food to those people, but it also keeps those federal dollars circulating in the region.”
When it comes to new jobs created by the VAPG, Gordon is more focused on maintaining the region’s agricultural economy and supporting existing producers.
“In terms of jobs created, it’s more jobs retained at this point,” she said. “We definitely have worked with a handful of new farmers, but given the short time we’ve been around it’s really about retaining the existing farming community and infrastructure.”
And further down the line? More FarmieMarkets could be popping up in the future as Gordon looks to recreate the successful online farmers market outside of the Capital Region.
“We’ve found that it’s a process that is replicable and it has grown rather rapidly,” Gordon said.
Read FarmieMarket’s press release on the VAPG award here.
USDA maintains a VAPG webpage.