Randi Grippen tosses a fallen tomato, and the grounds of Mountain Winds Farm suddenly flap into chaos. Hens cackle and streak across the field from their placid cooing in the weather-worn barns, pop from under tractors and brush. Grippen mocks them affectionately as he grabs his gloves and wire basket and slips into the coop to collect one round of the day’s eggs, which will soon take their place in his garage refrigerator. The freezer is stocked with meat birds; potatoes tumble across a tarp on the floor; a single basket holds what’s left of Grippen’s squash crop for the season. And wire racks stand stocked with bottles of Mountain Winds Farm’s core product: golden maple syrup, drawn from more than 1,200 taps and cooked and bottled on-premises.
Some of the all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry and eggs, maple syrups, creams and drops from Grippen’s one-man operation will be purchased by Berne locals who drop by the farm, grab what they need and leave money in the freezer. Some Grippen will truck to farmers markets in Delmar and Westerlo. And some will be sold through an online farmers market run by Sarah Gordon—a 21st century platform that Gordon and the 20 Capital Region family farms that she’s partnered with hope will change the landscape of the local food economy.
“I’ve been with the market for a year and a half, now, and there’s only been two weeks where I haven’t sold anything,” says Grippen, hauling a full basket of eggs back from the barn. “It’s up and down, but it’s generally at least 50 to 100 bucks a week. That makes a difference, and it’s still growing. There is a market out there for all this good stuff.”
Gordon, who grew up on a grass-fed beef farm just five miles down the road from Mountain Winds, received her masters degree in natural-resource policy from the University of Vermont. She was inspired by the local food movement in Burlington, where, she says, “the local farmer really is king.” Gordon saw the reality of a vital local food economy and returned home determined to tap that potential in the Capital Region.
Gordon created a website and started using social media to market the meat from her family farm. “Within a few months our direct sales had multiplied exponentially,” she says. “The average age of a farmer in this country is 59 years old. A lot of them aren’t internet savvy. A lot still run on dial-up, if at all. And, well, a lot of farmers are just better farmers than they are salespeople. They need assistance with their marketing skills.”
So in 2010, while working as a grant writer for Capital District Community Gardens, Gordon launched the Heldeberg online farmers market to help other local farmers connect to consumers and market their wares. This year, with the help of a $5,000 loan secured through the Albany Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, Gordon left her full-time job and founded FarmieMarket, which expanded the Helderberg Market model into Schenectady, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.
The 20 small farms enrolled in the market, all which produce hormone-, antibiotic-, pesticide-, herbicide-, preservative- and GMO-free products, list their wares for sale on the site, and customers, in turn, can shop from home and place a single order drawn from the inventory of all the farms—including seasonal produce, fresh eggs, beef, pork, chicken, herbs, maple syrup, honey, even yarn. Once a week Gordon meets farmers at a central location in each county to collect the orders and delivers them straight to customers’ doors, from Saratoga Springs to South Albany.
“It makes it so that farmers can be multitasking,” Gordon says. “They’re out doing the work, but they’re selling through the market at the same time. They don’t have to lose a day of work trying to sell their product.”
Gordon identifies other barriers to the traditional farmers-market model: In addition to sacrificing agricultural productivity, most markets are held on Saturday mornings, which limits the farmers’ access to the full customer bases, since they can only be in one market at a time, and the cost of participating in a market season can range from $200 to $600, with no guarantee of return.
“I wanted to create something that would limit the time commitment and the cost on the shoulders of the farmers, and still benefit the customer base,” says Gordon. And in our chaotic culture of industrial farming and, with people working long hours and juggling intricate family schedules, the key benefits to the customer are quality and convenience.
A few miles down from Mountain Winds, Sandy Gordon—farmer, county legislator and Sarah’s father— bounds out of the farmhouse he and his wife bought nearly 30 years ago with a shoebox full of money the young couple earned selling a herd of cattle. What began as a small hay farm with two Hereford heifers has since grown into a herd of nearly 70 Angus-Hereford beef cows, who lounge and munch in the expansive pastures, and low eagerly when Gordon appears.
It’s quickly clear where Sarah’s fervor for forwarding a sustainable food economy was kindled. The pair tour the farm’s acres and discuss the challenges of the food economy, the environmental and health impacts of industrial-scale farming and the potential for sustainable, responsible agriculture with an affecting blend of pride, passion and politics.
The key, they say, is an educated customer base that understands the system of production. “When a person can walk into Walmart and buy tomatoes for $1.99 a pound, it’s hard to convince them to pay more for tomatoes grown by a local, responsible farmer,” says Gordon. Those are artificial prices, she says, created by a government-subsidized, unsustainable, mass-produced food industry. “Farmers put a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of labor into what they do. To have an industrial-scale farm undercut them on the price is crippling.”
But, the Gordon duo argue, investing in good food has lasting and far-reaching returns: healthier families, a cleaner environment and a more vital regional economy. According to estimations by Cornell University, every dollar spent at a local farm is multiplied three to four times in the regional economy—spent within the community on feed, mill work, equipment and repair, farm assistants, coffee at the local diner.
At a recent farmer information meeting Gordon held, the FarmieMarket members worked together to develop strategies to limit competition between farmers and foster collaboration. “We had five people growing zucchini. Won’t need five people growing zucchini,” says Gordon. “But no one was growing beans to dry . . . diversifying and adding new crops creates a new potential profit center for the farms and expands the local food supply. The goal is to turn FarmieMarket into a comprehensive online grocery store where all the food is sourced locally.”
And the better the market offerings, the more powerful the potential impact.
“If the 250 on our Facebook page spend $30 once a month, that’s what?” asks daughter. “$7,500 a month,” vollies father, “$90,000 a year. Then you expand the economic impact using Cornell’s multiplier, and you’re past a quarter million, heading towards a half. That’s jobs right there.”
“And that’s if 250 people order once a month,” says Sarah. “If we had the whole Capital Region ordering once a month, soon the region could sustain itself. That’s how you rebuild an economy, by supporting the local businesses. That’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s what we keep working toward. In an economy where there’s cheap food available, you have to depend on the fact that there’s an educated customer base out there that’s going to make the decision to buy local food for a good reason. The more that we can get that message out there, the more jobs we will see in rural areas, the more farms can stay afloat. That’s how we’re going to be able to sustain a food culture in this country that’s wholesome and healthy for future generations, and that’s the goal of the whole thing.”