The HVADC Cultivator
Farm and Food Funding Accelerator Participant:
Gray Family Farm
Gray Family Farm in New Windsor in Orange County is a direct-to-consumer family farm and CSA. Their weekly seasonal CSA offers local, organic and foraged produce, organic eggs and all natural, free-range meats. The farm’s owners Shelley and Roger Gray have a passion to educate people about sustainable, all-natural farming- and prefer to work closely with other vendors with similar values.
Shelley and Roger Gray began farming on a small scale in 1979, and their agribusinesses have grown to encompass Gray Family Farm, Ivy Rock Farms - an equestrian center and camp, a guest house, as well as a hay operation. However both Grays have experience running a completely unrelated, albeit equally demanding, business as well—building scenery for Broadway and theatrical productions: Center Line Studios. Shelley has worked in theater since age 15, where she met Roger who was working as a stagehand. Shelley said the couple both took business classes while in college to round off their art degrees, believing no matter what field one enters, understanding business is essential. “Roger worked as a stage hand learning the craft before we struck out on our own in 1987,” said Shelley. “We then were doing small farming at home, chickens, sheep, horses and vegetables. I always canned and dried what we grew and foraged for more things like elderberries and grapes to make jellies. We picked up the first horse farm on foreclosure and put our business knowledge to work. As you know the horse business is a tough one. Then, we bought the second one and built barns and indoor facilities and arenas ourselves, using our construction knowledge.” Those farms, explained Shelley, offer boarding, training, lessons, camp and therapeutic riding. A third farm became available, she added, where they now pasture-raise poultry, eggs, vegetables, maple syrup, and honey for the CSA, as well as hops. Thanksgiving turkeys have been a very popular addition in past years. “It has been very successful,” said Shelley. “We used to go the farm markets but found the CSA model works better as well as off-farm sales.” The Gray Family Farm CSA has a strong following within the West Point community. The couple also has a 220,000 square foot building in which they do warehousing and storage and manage their farm business.
The Grays are well-equipped with their diverse backgrounds and skillset. “Before starting our Broadway scenery business, I was the first woman driver for UPS in Orange County, and during college I did tune-ups at Sears Auto. Then we started our business and ran that for 32 years. One of the last shows we built was for the off-Broadway production of Hamilton,” said Shelley.
One day the couple received a mailing about HVADC’s Farm Food Funding Accelerator program (FFFA), “My husband saw the post card that came in the mail and said I should definitely do this,” said Shelley. “I really want to get my farm businesses to cash flow better so we can just concentrate on them and not have to work off-farm.”
Through the program, Shelley worked extensively with FFFA advisor and HVADC’s financial and business consultant, Brian Zweig, principal of Business Opportunities Management in Rensselaer County. Shelley said they worked especially hard with Zweig who was ‘critiquing the numbers.’ “I just love that stuff,” said Shelley. “There were some expected results and some surprises.” Shelley added that FFFA Project Manager business coach Sylke Chesterfield of Chesterfield Advantage, helped her evaluate the “day-to-day managing of people” which Shelley described as a challenge for the couple.
As most FFFA participants often concur, the Grays reported that the networking with other farmers has been a strong benefit of their FFFA involvement. “I am so grateful to have met other farmers,” Shelley said. “I feel like we are in a bubble sometimes and it was so helpful to talk about problems and solutions others may have already found. I am now doing business with my peers from FFFA program and that makes me happy to support other local farms. My CSA members are delighted with the new additions to their weekly baskets. To have cheese and other specials is a nice surprise.” The Grays are also teaming up with a fellow FFFA peer to become Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified. “It is fun to do the process with someone else. I loved the farm visits. I didn’t miss one, and I think that was probably the most beneficial time spent with the other peers in the group. It is so exciting to see other operations and how they do things,” Shelley said.
Shelley added that they appreciate the validation received from their fellow peers and the FFFA advisors, and were relieved to learn that they are running their business effectively.“I think the things I learned from FFFA will continue to change how I run the farms and having someone I can call if I need direction on where to go for something will be invaluable going forward,” answered Shelley. “I am so grateful the opportunity and hope I can do the program proud going forward. I had the opportunity to be accepted in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in 2014 for my scenery business, and the FFFA is really very similar and provides the same help but focused on agriculture.”
HVADC Deputy Director Mary Ann Johnson said, “All the FFFA Peers come to the program with different products, business models and with businesses at different stages of growth or maturity. Shelley’s extensive business training and her integrated model businesses positioned her for success within our funding accelerator. Through the FFFA, she was able to identify future opportunities, refine her plan, and find support. The FFFA’s peer support network has been particularly valuable for them and will continue to benefit them as they find new capacities in which to partner with their fellow peers.”
Applications are now being accepted for the third FFFA program through September 16. To learn more, visit https://www.hvadc.org/fffa-about-the-program.
Photos: Gray Family Farm
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