Field Goods – a Hudson Valley Subscription Service

Donna Williams

Donna Williams, 52, founder of Field Goods.

Field Goods is a subscription-based service that delivers produce year round from small farms to employees and consumers at workplaces and community sites in the Eastern New York area. It is located in Athens, NY, a small Hudson River town in Greene County. Besides providing consumers with convenient access to local produce on a regular basis, the service tries to motivate them toward a healthier lifestyle. Field Goods has been recognized for hiring workers with disabilities, supporting agriculture and creating jobs in an economically disadvantaged area.

The organization was founded by Donna Williams in 2011 and has grown rapidly since then. Williams had been employed in the food industry but was laid off with the business downturn in 2008. Using her familiarity with food-based businesses, she looked around for opportunities in that field. While taking a job with the Greene County Industrial Development Agency to assess an incubator program for new farming ventures, she saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. “There was huge demand for local food and a lot of people that want to start farming, but there wasn’t a scalable distribution system for small farms.

So Williams, 52, founded Field Goods as a farm-to-office subscription food delivery service. She raided her own savings for start-up cash and got a $25,000 micro-enterprise grant from the county. She worked with a few local farmers at first, delivering the produce herself to her 60 customers in an old station wagon.

Since then Field Goods has come a long way. The company now delivers to about 3,500 subscribers at 510 workplaces and community centers in eastern New York State and the metro NY area including western Connecticut and northern New Jersey. She employs 33 full and part-time workers at her 18,000 square-foot cold storage warehouse and reports that sales have been doubling every year.

Regional food hubs, either for-profit or nonprofit entities that aggregate and distribute food from local farms, are springing up all over the country, according to Modern Farmer. But these are CSAs, which tend to serve relatively small numbers of people who generally have to pay upfront at the beginning of the growing season.

While CSAs works really well in either urban areas, where people pick up their order within walking distance of home, or in rural areas, where they typically drive right up to the farm, Donna says:
“The reality for the rest of us folks is that we’re not going to a farm.” So she decided to ‘suburbanize’ the CSA concept and make it a whole lot easier for people to eat their veggies. The program delivers to about a hundred public and private sites around New York City, for example. A private site (such as the New Rochelle City Hall on Wednesday afternoons) is for employees or members at an institution or firm, and a public one (such as the Scarsdale public library on Wednesday afternoons and evenings) is for anyone who joins.

Subscribers pay by the week — $15 for the smallest bag up to $30 for the largest — and if they want to put their deliveries on hold, they can do so. They can also add on locally produced specialty items to their weekly delivery, such as fresh-baked bread, cooking oils, butter and cheese. Typically, there are about seven or eight different items in the bags each week.

Field Goods picks what goes in the bag, so it can react to what’s in the field – which is a real benefit to farmers. “We don’t have to have the perfect pepper.” Williams says. “That’s incredibly valuable to farmers because the waste in the field is a lot less.”

One of Field Goods most popular items is the “fingerling” sweet potato. In fact, there’s no such vegetable — these are sweet potatoes that haven’t matured fully and wouldn’t make the cut in a giant supermarket. But people love them, says Donna. “They’re really ugly and funky-looking.” Field Goods also provides a market for quirkier specialty crops, like eschalions, a cross between a shallot and an onion, and kale sprouts, a brussel sprouts-kale hybrid.

The company has purchased more than $4 million in local food products and works with a network of 80 farmers in the region.

Adam Hainer runs Juniper Hill, a 40-acre certified organic farm nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in Wadhams, NY. Working with Field Goods has enabled him to scale more quickly than he could have by just supplying his CSA customers with produce. His business used to taper off after the busy summer season, but now Field Goods provides a market well into the fall and winter for the farm’s root vegetables.

“We were struggling to find a large enough market to scale up our business,” he recalls. “Along came Donna and we had the opportunity to go from 10 acres in production to 40 over the next couple of years.”

To help manage the complexity of organizing such a business, Field Goods applied for a USDA Agriculture Marketing Service Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) grant. Congress created LFPP in the 2014 Farm Bill as a sister program to the AMS Farmers Market Promotion Program to, in general, be used for intermediary supply chain activities that support local marketing, including aggregation, processing, storage and distribution. Field Goods became one of AMS’ first LFPP recipients. Williams used the two-year, $50,000 LFPP grant to pioneer a new piece of software called “In The Field.”

This software helps Field Goods maintain and improve its relationships with producers by making collaboration easier. These relationships are essential to Field Goods’ success because their model relies on trust and cooperation. In The Field allows producers to more easily share information, such as crop availability and desired price, and makes it possible for Field Goods to manage orders and request specific products. By reducing the costs of managing the supply chain and increasing transparency, this new tool lets Field Goods continue to partner with a broad range of local producers even as they scale up the business.

Another important decision Donna made early on was to approach local employers and market Field goods as a corporate ‘wellness benefit’. She promoted diet as the best way to prevent health problems, and her program as the best way to build a healthy diet for workers: “Field Goods keeps them out of the grocery store. You lose when you go to the grocery store. You’re gonna walk out with those cookies.”

Employers such as Albany Medical Center, baby food maker BeechNut Nutrition Corp., Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, CT, and FujiFilm, with locations in Stamford, CT, and Valhalla, NY have joined. Three of those signed on for ‘BEETCamp,’ a 10-week wellness program where the company subsidizes their employees’ weekly Field Goods subscription. Workers also get a newsletter with recipes and nutritional information.

“We have tried dozens of wellness programs and none has come close to the popularity and impact of Field Goods,“ said Carolyn Gordon, director of benefits at Fujifilm Holdings America Corp.

A research team at the Sage Colleges studied whether a Fields Goods subscription to a weekly delivery of local produce has a positive impact on maintaining a healthy diet. Among the significant findings of the program, according to Dr. Rayane AbuSabha, professor of Nutrition Science at the colleges in Troy, NY, were:

Eating Healthier – after about 3 months, 40% of subscribers reported that they are eating healthier and eating more vegetables than before they joined,

Eating a Greater Variety – subscribers increased the variety of the types of vegetables they ate, adding on average two new vegetable categories to their diet,

Happier with Diet – after just 3 months, the percentage of subscribers reporting they were extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of their diet increased by 50%. The percentage dropped from 84% saying their family’s diet needed improvement initially to just 20% after 3 months,

Spent Less on Food – weekly subscribers report spending about $20 per month less on groceries

“We’re getting more and more people hearing about us and calling us,” Donna remarks. “A lot of small companies and regular people say they heard about us and ask ‘can you come to our company.’ And we say, ‘sure.’ She is presently evaluating the Boston market as a base for expanding out the program to neighboring states.