A former investment banker and business development consultant in New York City, Donna Williams has seen the growth of what she calls the “local food movement” since moving to Greene County in the Hudson Valley more than a decade ago.
“I don’t want to say ‘trend,’” Williams said recently at her company office in Athens, where boxes of produce sat on a table near the entrance. The growth of small farms supplying residents and commercial customers in the region with fresh food is not a dubious passing fad, that is. “It’s for sure and for real,” Williams said. And Field Goods, her innovative produce delivery service, is a part of it.
Williams in 2001 moved to her parents’ home on Sleepy Hollow Lake in Athens while recovering from a series of back surgeries. “I had to find how to make a living in Greene County,” she said. A graduate of the Columbia University Business School, she taught microeconomics as an adjunct professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany and briefly worked as a business consultant. She was vice president of business development for Sahale Snacks, a maker of nuts and fruit mixes based in Seattle, until her position was eliminated in the Great Recession. “I did real estate for about 15 minutes,” she said.
Hired as a consultant to the Greene County Industrial Development Agency, Williams a few years ago studied the feasibility of the IDA’s proposal to start an agricultural incubator in the county. It brought her in contact “with everyone that was in agriculture in 200 miles,” she said.
The incubator project never got off the ground, but Williams saw a potential business opportunity among the farmers she had met. “People want it,” she said of the farm-to-table movement she observed during her study, “and the small, scalable distribution channels that will maintain the integrity of the small farms.”
Small farms in the Hudson Valley typically have sold their produce at roadside farm stands and farmers markets. The latter “is a saturated market” with limited numbers of vendor spaces available to farmers, Williams said. “Farmers markets have pretty much tapped out.”
Small farms also have relied on Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives, whose members purchase shares of vegetables at a participating farm in their region. “They tend to be very urban or very rural,” Williams said of the CSAs. “I looked at that CSA model and said how can I suburbanize it?”
The result is Field Goods L.L.C., the company Williams started in 2011 with her own funds and a $25,000 microenterprise loan from Greene County that Williams will not have to repay if her company survives for five years. At the field-goods.com website, customers subscribe for weekly deliveries of fruits and vegetables priced at $20, $25 and $30 and receive six to eight varieties of produce in each delivery. Williams said she can “keep costs down dramatically” by selecting on her own the seasonal varieties bought at farms rather than buying to meet individual customers’ orders.
Field Goods offers no home delivery service. “You need very dense populations to make home deliveries work,” Williams said. Instead the company reduces its transport costs and pass-on costs to customers by making group drop-offs at workplaces and community sites.
Williams said she primarily markets the Fresh Goods service as a wellness program that companies can provide their subscribing employees at no cost to the employers. Some drop-off sites are also open to the public.
“It does change behavior,” said Williams, who includes recipes and information on how to use the selected produce of the week in subscribers’ bags. “If you get a bag from Field Goods every week, you will eat fruits and vegetables.”
Williams said Field Goods is doing a study with the Sage Colleges in Albany to measure the effect of the produce deliveries on dietary changes among new customers. Those quantitative findings might persuade insurance companies to offer incentives for employer and employee participation in the subscription plan, she said.
Her 15-employee business has grown rapidly. Williams said she is buying foods from more than 60 farms ranging from Clinton County in northern New York to southern New Jersey. She has been buying produce in New Jersey this spring “because it’s been such a hard, cold season so the Hudson Valley folks don’t have product yet,” she said.
The produce is being delivered in Field Goods trucks to more than 2,000 subscribers at about 300 drop-off locations from Saratoga Springs to Yonkers. Field Goods recently expanded its delivery service into Westchester and Dutchess counties.
In Westchester, participating employers include Curtis Instruments in Mount Kisco; Cuddy & Feder L.L.P., a White Plains law firm; Malkin Properties in Harrison, for its tenants at 500 Mamaroneck Ave.; the Jewish Community Center of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale; and the Westchester Library System in Tarrytown.
In South Salem, Gossett Brothers Nursery hosts a public pickup site for Field Goods. “It’s another way of getting fresh food for the folks who are too busy with their kids on weekends to make it to the farmers market” that the nursery operates year-round on Saturdays, said owner Tom Gossett.
Williams said the company is gaining subscribers from the ranks of professionals and companies with a well-educated workforce. “Where we fall down is your blue collar worker, or your white collar sort of blue collar worker,” she said. “We don’t get the call center worker.”
“As a business practice, we really try to buy from small farms, what I call startup younger people farms,” Williams said. Yet some established family farms, too, are expanding their acreage for diversified produce farming, she noted.
“Even for family-owned farms, there seems to be an increasing entrepreneurial feel about the younger ones, the next-generation farmers that are joining in this local food movement,” she said.
“This local food thing is a big deal,” said the founder of Field Goods. Having worked as a consultant to Internet startup companies in the late ’90s, Williams said she sees similar enterprise in the region’s food industry “in terms of the energy and the growth that’s happening. As a part of that, I anticipate there are going to be a lot of failures.”
To succeed with her subscription delivery business, Williams must continue to add farms with available produce to supply her growing list of customers. Supplying 2,000 customers already at times has been difficult.
“I’m always farmer-hunting,” she said.