Through working with 80 farms from the Capital Region and beyond, Donna Williams connects small-farm produce with over 3,000 families and businesses.
Williams opened her business, Field Goods, in Athens, Greene County, in 2011 with one high school intern and delivered from the back of her dad’s station wagon.
Since then she’s grown her business to include six delivery trucks and 35 employees. Williams is now entering her busiest season — spring. That’s when produce begins to be available and people have yet to go on their summer vacations, she said.
“I always say starting a business is like having a baby. You don’t get to give it back. You can’t kind of stop it,” Williams said. “Once you’re in, you’re really in. So I guess in some ways, like having a child, you have a great deal of joy and a great deal of sleepless nights.”
Her tenacity is noticed by the farmers she works with.
“They have a good business model and they seem to be growing,” said Ethan Ball, farm manager at Schoharie Valley Farm in Schoharie. “I think it’s a good outlet for many farmers who [are] trying to do the retail thing, it’s another alternative to find a home for some good produce.”
Williams’ business model — bringing local produce to homes by partnering with farms — allows for better nutrition at a lower cost. The bags of produce come in four sizes — single, small, standard, and family — ranging in price from $15 to $30. Each bag, with the exception of the single-sized bag, typically has 6 vegetables of various quantities in it each week.
“The convenience factor is really powerful because it comes right to them,” Williams said. “The value is fantastic. You get a lot of food at a really good price because we’re buying from the farms directly. We pick what’s going to be in the bags each week, which gets people to try new things that they would never really buy, which is a well-loved feature.”
That farm-to-consumer model has allowed Williams and her team to help small farmers, too, she says. The farms she works with experience a boost in sales and farm recognition.
“In the produce industry, it’s tough,” Ball said. “A lot of people like to buy things and not everybody is good about payment and they’ve been really good about payment.”
Schoharie Valley provides Field Goods with turnips, parsnips, potatoes, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus and fingerling potatoes in various seasons.
“I know they’ve got an eye for the future,” Ball said. “They are doing a lot to help the upstate-downstate connection. They’re a little more upstate but I know they have customers downstate in the city and they’re helping to bridge the gap between farmers and the biggest appetite in the state — down in the city.”
The connection factor has grown the markets available to the smaller upstate farms that populate the Capital Region.
“In all my experience, and it’s long, I’ve never worked with a group of people that are just so pleasant,” said Williams, who has worked in investment banking, e-commerce, and consumer health. “The farmers are just a joy to work with.”
Williams’ customers — from as far north as Queensbury south to Westchester County — include both families and businesses that subscribe to the company and have weekly pickups at locations in their neighborhoods. All the locations are listed on the Field Goods website, field-goods.com. There are about 500 pickup locations in all.
In the Schenectady area pickups are available at the Schenectady YMCA, 433 State St., every Friday from 2:30 to 8:30 p.m., and at the Schenectady JCC, at 2565 Balltown Road in Niskayuna, Fridays from 1:45 to 5:45 p.m. Customers choose a convenient site for them from the list and go each week to pick up their bags. Pickup locations are either public locations open to all or private locations — often businesses.
Field Goods works with over 300 businesses, 35 schools, and 20 libraries, including Schenectady High School and the Schenectady County Public Library.
A newer initiative that Williams is proud of is her “Beet Camp.” The camp is an employee-benefits program she created with Amy Perrault, who was working as the vice president of Beech-Nut Nutrition Co. in Montgomery County at the time. Beet Camp allows companies to subsidize the produce bags, delivered directly to the place of business, for 10 weeks to entice employees to lead healthier lives.
“You can put the bag in somebody’s hand,” Perrault said. “It’s a great employee benefit. They can take it home and try things that they wouldn’t normally.”
The Beet Camp is still ongoing at Beech-Nut. The company still subsidizes employee bags. Perrault, who has since left the company, is still a subscriber herself.
“Honestly wherever I settle in, I would look for a similar program, or to put a similar program in place,” she said as she plans on moving out of the state.
Perrault says the camp is a good stepping stone for any business and a way to cut costs in the long run.
“One, it’s the right thing to do; two, the obvious is health care costs — they’re not going down. It helps to offset some rising health care costs,” she said. “It just makes them healthier and happier and more productive.”
The benefits of subscribing to Field Goods were studied by Rayane AbuSabha, professor of nutrition at The Sage Colleges. AbuSabha surveyed customers before they began their subscriptions, at the three-month mark, and then after a year using the service.
“We’ve shown at three months for sure that people’s vegetable intake . . . increases but their expenditure at the supermarket goes down,” said AbuSabha. “People always think, ‘If I’m going to be buying Field Goods I’m going to be spending more,’ but they end up saving.”
AbuSabha was inspired to start the study as a subscriber and lover of Field Goods herself. The study was truly objective having moved to Wisconsin right when she began collecting data, she said. While a report on the study is available on the Field Goods website AbuSabha has yet to formally publish her results but plans to present them at two conferences this summer. She will present in Boston while Williams will present the study in New York.
Williams has her sights set on growing the business beyond eastern New York to get more people on the “veggie train.”
“Running a business like mine, which is an incredibly new idea and it’s growing rapidly, is you’re constantly innovating and constantly solving problems,” said Williams. “You’re kind of making it up as you go along and constantly changing because of your growth.”