Sara Mader: Building a Brand on the Farm
As part of AFT’s efforts to expand our Women for the Land Programming in the Pacific Northwest, our team started by listening to women in agriculture in the region to better understand what challenges they are facing, what worries them and excites them about the future, and what they want more people to understand about agriculture today. Between February and April of 2021, we spoke with women who represent a variety of life experiences, agricultural scales, and production systems during livestream interviews with our Women for the Land and Pacific Northwest teams. From these conversations emerged profiles of some of these inspiring women’s stories. We spoke with Sara Mader on April 8, 2021.
Sara Mader came into agriculture as a second career, bringing critical skills she learned throughout her career in human resources and technology. When she married into a multi-generational farm family, she brought these skills to bear and now leads a large team as the Chief Executive Officer of Palouse Brand. She still recalls the conversation over breakfast that initially helped recharge her in-law’s family farming business, during which she brought fresh ideas around branding and consumer responsiveness that shaped new directions for the business and helped it stay relevant in changing times. These ideas seeded what Palouse Brand is today: a multi-pronged operation, selling Pacific-Northwest grown pulses and grains to both domestic and international consumers, including through innovative online e-commerce platforms. Sara’s role affects critical aspects of the family-run business, with her responsibilities ranging from handling the international exports they make to the Middle East, South America, Europe and beyond, to running the U.S. domestic consumer brand.
“It was kind of my dream baby to do the consumer side and partner with Amazon and other online shopping to bring consumers a product direct from our farm; a product that consumers could connect with and ask questions about.”
Due to the surge in online sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, the team she built has significantly scaled up its e-commerce sales, which has meant long hours and fast growth. But Sara and her team keep their employees top of mind, particularly when it comes to parental leave, which as a mother herself, Sara made a priority as a leader in the business.
As a working mother herself, Sara has intentionally built structures in the workplace at Palouse Brand to enable flexibility for the women they employ.
“I wanted to design a workplace built for women, run by women that understand the need to get a call from the school and walk off the job with no attendance repercussions or stay home with a child that’s ill and know that their job is secure.”
And in their rural community, this kind of flexibility is rare at such a large scale and fills a critical employment gap in the community.
“There are a few larger national employers in town, but they come with strong attendance policies and so a lot of times we’ll find that the women have been let go from these jobs because of childcare issues. We really search for those women who want to put food on the table and have that job security.”
Customer-driven Sustainable Practices
Sara is peripherally involved in the land management decisions, but her focus on connecting more with customers has helped Sara make the case to her colleagues about innovating the agricultural practices the production team employs. She’s observed consumer trends arc towards concern for human and environmental health, and her ability to integrate transparency practices and consumer feedback loops has helped her business see the demand for integrating more conservation-focused practices on the land.
“I do help drive decisions in terms of soil practices via sharing with the team about what consumers are looking for, consumer trends, and research that’s coming out . . . On the consumer side, things have really changed over the course of the last 10 years. Something that I knew in the beginning was that we could be different by setting ourselves apart and giving people details of how their food was grown . . . so as we’ve modified our practices a lot of it has been consumer driven.”
One key request from their customers has been for Glyphosate-free products. As a result, their team changed practices on the farm so that they are now sun drying all of their legume crops. To provide further information for their customers, Palouse Brand also pursued a sustainability certification through the Food Alliance, a non-profit organization based in the Pacific Northwest. This voluntary certification is a means for agricultural producers and food companies to address growing customer demand for traceability, transparency, and social and environmental responsibility, and is verified through audits of both the production and processing aspects of the business. With growing consumer concern about climate change, their team is also now discussing carbon credits and other opportunities to shift their practices.
Among the practices their farm is already implementing in response to their environmental awareness is dry land farming, a system that involves reliance on moisture captured by soil during the cool, wet season to drive crop production during dry seasons, as opposed to irrigating during extended cropping seasons. This practice is conducive to production in semi-arid regions but requires farms to factor in planned crop losses during particularly dry winter seasons. This additional lack of control can be tricky for businesses like Sara’s especially as they work to scale with demand and communicate directly with customers.
“In terms of the dry land . . . we don’t have control over everything about our farms. We can’t turn the water off and on so your crop outputs can really vary in terms of yield production based on the amount of moisture you get.”
Sara and her team have experienced growing pains in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which demand spiked on the e-commerce side of their business and international exports became increasingly complex. This context forced Sara’s team to make changes to their infrastructure, including equipment, packaging, and shipping containers. Sara has been particularly involved in traversing trade policies and regulations in the various foreign markets they sell to. While her assertive approach has enabled them to ultimately expand their markets, it has not been without both personal and professional struggle on the part of Sara and her team. They’ve faced hurdles surrounding trade tariffs and food safety regulations of foreign governments, not to mention the challenges associated with negotiating as a woman entrepreneur in a wide variety of cultural contexts.
For Sara, scaling up also has its consequences for other priorities throughout the business that she is passionate about. “Right now, we’re small enough to know each other and to go through struggles together, but big enough to take care of our people well . . . We do have to compete [as an employer]. There are some other manufacturing jobs in the region . . . and so for us to be able to keep the quality of people we have as a company we’ve had to make strategic decisions to provide great health care [and a] great working environment.”
On top of Sara’s business acumen, her abilities to build strong relationships, think in whole systems, and operate with concern for broader community-level impacts provide unique assets to the operation. When asked what her advice is for other women for the land and Pacific Northwest in agriculture, she noted:
“I would never start farming in a weak marital situation. It is not for the faint of heart . . . it takes a lot of grit — there are ups downs, and there are tears. There’s laughter, there’s joy, but you have to figure out where that joy is for you because that’s what keeps you going.”