Field Goods Founder, Donna Williams brings a unique and comprehensive skill set and wide-ranging experience to Field Goods. She has worked in banking, start-up food, internet, consumer health and publishing companies. Her experience selling to grocery retailers, distributor and food service companies informed her understanding of how costly and difficult it is for small food producers to get their products into traditional food distribution channels. Donna lives in Athens, NY with her husband and 8-year old son, where she is the coach of the FIELD GOODS Hot Potatoes U8 Soccer Team.
Donna earned her MBA from Columbia Business School and BA in Economics from Mount Holyoke College.
Field Goods began when Donna did a study on start up farmers for Greene County. One conclusion from the study was that for small farmers a distribution system did not exist that would both maintain the integrity and support significant growth of small farm product. While farmers markets and CSAs were great solutions they have limitations for distribution and require that farmers become sales folk and logistics experts. Donna’s company, Field Goods helps maintain the integrity of the small farms by scaling distribution which stabilizes the local food market.Field Goods was an inevitable outgrowth of this work, her belief in the positive power of local food and small business, and her new venture experience in consumer health, e-commerce, and the natural food industry
Field Goods buys products weekly from small farmers and creates eclectic and unusual food shares for clients. Donna composes each share and offers her clients an array of local goodies not always available through other vendors. Often she’ll buy unusual herbs, funky interesting “Hyper Niche Food”. Besides vegetables and fruit these items include cheese, pasta, and bread.
By buying products in large quantities, buying overage and being consistent buyers Field Goods benefits farmers. Committed to procure from small farmers and start ups every spring she contracts products with tiny farms. She does also buy from larger local farmers who offer unique value like Continental Organics in New Windsor.
Donna says her goal is to be the “farmer’s favorite customer”. Her strategy is to make doing business with her super attractive for farmers. To achieve this she doesn’t hustle their price, will pick up or meet up with farmers to get goods, listen to and consider niche products and buy overages. A great example of this is her willingness to meet with farmers like Rogillio’s R and R Farm in the parking lot Walmart in Newburgh to buy their onions.
Some business is done on contract others with just a handshake. Farmers plant specific crops just for her and are increasing the amount they are growing and selling over all. Some grow specific things just for Field Goods. Her farmers are predominantly in Greene, Columbia, Dutchess, and Scoharie counties. Just recently they began connecting with the black dirt district in Orange County.
She takes the farmer’s price and put a margin on it and she making sure that her head of lettuce is priced the same or less than a grocery store. There are times her bags sell for 30% less than a grocery store.
We asked Donna how this year’s market prices would change because of the drought in California.
“If anything it may help us. Grocery store product will be affected. What we sell is entirely different than the grocery store food. Grocery store products in theory would go up in price. Ours would stay the same. The small farms are not looking at the commodity price. They are looking at the local price. The local price can be all over the board. She may pay as much as 25% more for a product from one farmer than another. Which could be worth while if the farmer is closer or better logistically.” The over all value remains relatively stable because local farmers are not competing in mega commodity markets.
Some food producers & farmers she works with include Knoll Krest Pasta in Hyde Park,, Common Hands Farm start up in Hudson where Dan and Tess utilize and train WOOFERS to plant and harvest, Amazing Real Live Food Company in Pine Plains who provide Cheese, Cafe La Perche in Hudson who bake in a wood burning oven from France.
On the Customer Side:
Most drop off points for Field Goods are through employer health initiatives. Companies are looking to support employee’s health with fresh food. Conveniently getting great local produce at work employees avoid grocery stores, reducing temptation to buy cookies. By removing choice, expanding employees’ culinary horizons and sharing recipes for creative cooking employers hope to cultivate healthier employees. Members keep telling Donna that they would never have eaten some of the unusual items they discover through their share. They stretch and try these new items because their in the bag.
One of the favorite finds in the bag that gets a lot of feedback are concord grapes. Customers respond that they didn’t think that “grape juice flavor” was real. They didn’t know that there is a real fruit that tastes like a concord grape or that the concord grape flavor they loved in processed fruit drinks was derived from a real grape. Employers hope that teaching their employees to eat fresh minimally processed foods will help improve the over all health of their workforce.
Donna leverages her bag system to support new markets for farmers. Having a consistent customer base with Donna helps unusual products find their way to restaurants and other markets. Farmers can risk planting the unusual and the risky knowing they have a market with Donna. Customers have their food world expanded by allowing Field Goods to curate their groceries.
Local farmers tried the unusual caraflex “Cone Head” Cabbage, which is sweeter and thinner than standard cabbage and is what is used to make authentic german sauerkraut. Farmers discovered that the unusual shape kept it from selling well at Farmer’s Markets. Donna stepped in and bought quantities of the cabbage and sent them to her clients. Customers learned what to do with the odd shaped veggie through recipes on Field Goods’ website and enjoyed learning how to cook the odd yet delicious cabbage.
Health Study Collaboration
Field Goods’ unique business model may result in health changes for customers. The Sage Colleges is currently conducting a new customers’ Diet Study. They are looking for answers to the question “Does a member program like Field Goods change members’ diet and are they healthier?” Results are being tallied and will be shared on the Field Goods website.
Another benefit of removing choice is reducing waste. In the bag share system there is very little waste because Field Goods selects the items in the bag for the customer. Field Goods sells products that a grocery stores can’t sell. Like dirty carrots. The dirt helps maintain the shelf life and reduces the spread of food borne illnesses. Members wash them at home. (Washing at home also helps reduce diseases spread by water.) Carrots of all shapes and sizes are put in the bags rather than the specific size and shape carrots that are traditionally found in commercial bagged carrots. Grocery stores also have to guess and over buy in anticipation of what consumers will choose and what consumers will reject. Donnapretty much knows how much each member is getting and what they are getting. By reducing outdated and rejected food they feel they increase value.
We asked what percentage of produce Field Goods buys is organic. Donna responded that organic food accounted for 20% certified, 40% in practice, 20% IPM and 20% conventional. Of the conventional growers they are small farmers so they hand harvest and therefore have a stake in keeping it low spray.
Large industrial farms that rely on mechanical harvesting don’t have eyes in the field, which means they are more likely to need to spray prophylactically. She says if you are a small local grower the reverse economy of scale makes it more advantages to more likely to inspect and treat specific problems. If they have a problem they will deal with the issue on a small scale and save the time and cost of spray. Having said that she admits that there are all sorts of nuances in growing, some vegetables like rhubarb don’t need spray. Growing fruits has challenges across the Region. Spotty odd shaped fruit can be a good sign of less spray. Customers buy blind can avoid the temptation of choosing “manufactured” looking food. (food that looks “Good”) and may reduce the overall chemical impact of growing.
Centered in Athens, New York the Field Goods eclectic crew includes people with disabilities, (FG has been awarded Ulster – Greene ARC employer of the year), drivers who are retired veterans, recent high school grads and working moms. Their floor manager is a 20 year old Catskill High School grad who finds that a growing company is her best business training ground.
The need for specific skills and lack of full time work drives this crew diversity. The ARC team is perfect for recycling the returned share bags. They empty and fold share bags. The retired workers work 1 or 2 days a week and are experienced, reliable drivers. Moms tend to be great at selling Field Goods. Attractions for all include flexible hours and above market average wages. Columbia – Greene is the place where kids who want to stay in the region are ending up. Building better than average jobs makes the area just a little more sustainable.
Where is Donna going with Field Goods?
This season Field Goods is launching local canola and sunflower oils (from Vermont) and local frozen organic heirloom variety beans.
Donna envisions creating regional Field Goods in Rochester, Danbury, Mid-Atlantic and is open to people who would like to help expand to other markets. She says “How fast do you grow is always the question.” Starting new markets and supply chains is a daunting task and there must be capacity to commit the money and time for development. Donna utilized a $25,000 grant through the Greene County Quantum Fund Grant to start Field Goods.
She’s looking for farmers to utilize local space and has done some “farmer to land” matching. Donna’s looking to match the right buyer with the 180 acre farm next to her home and would love to get more real, live farmers in Athens.