Farm-to-everything with Mary Blackmon

The Farm Star Living founder hopes to bridge the gap between growers and consumers

No value assignedWhen Mary Blackmon left her rural Arkansas hometown to pursue a big-city career in marketing and advertising, it seemed likely she'd never return. Blackmon spent over a decade working for publishing houses and internet companies in Atlanta, New York City, and Los Angeles before founding a spa discount site called Spa Addicts, which she spent the next decade building into a multi-million dollar business.

Then, in 2008, Blackmon learned that much of her family's farmland in Arkansas was being sold. Rather than lose the remaining land, she returned home, determined to save her heritage. Since then, in addition to learning how to actually run a working farm (harder than it looks, she says), Blackmon has relocated to Atlanta and started a farming lifestyle brand called Farm Star Living, meant to bridge the gap between growers and consumers. The site features individual farmer spotlights, a farm to table directory, a find-a-farm guide, recipes, videos, blogs, and even an interactive app allowing users to find nearby farms or farm-to-table restaurants.

On Thurs., Jan. 26th at the W Hotel Midtown, Blackmon will host her first ever Farm Star Living Product Harvest, a "farm-to-everything showcase" introducing consumers to farm-fresh products and the farmers behind popular produce brands like Wonderful Pistachios, NatureSweet, and Del Monte. CL caught up with Blackmon to learn more.

What was it like returning to rural farming in Arkansas after so many years of city life?

Exhilarating and yet also was a pretty scary process. I’d never farmed myself, but I had visited my grandparents’ farm while growing up — visited all the time. It was a slice of heaven for me, the safe place I’d imagine when I was overstressed with the hectic pace of my career in NYC and LA. So, it was a bit of a dream come true to be back there, but the reality of it was a rough awakening, too. I was “schooled” and realized how hard it is, how challenging every aspect of farming can be — from beaver dams, to fires, to hurricanes and tornadoes, to government paperwork, to getting things done without modern conveniences nearby, to being rather remote and alone. On the other hand, also learning how exciting and rewarding it all can be when it all comes together. 

What was the initial idea behind Farm Star Living and how did you translate that into reality?

As I continued down this new, dirt road path, I realized more and more the disconnect between this crazy new world of farming and the fast-paced world I had just left. More than ever, I wanted to bridge the gap between the two and shine a spotlight on the passion and excitement surrounding farming — and shine it specifically on our farmers. I felt that farmers were often taken for granted, often seeming unrelatable to others in the “cities,” and “farming” often was viewed as an inaccessible world. I wanted to change that, make this all more accessible, welcoming, and in a way that was fun, engaging, and new.  A way to thank our “Farm Stars,” because they deserved to be as much a star as our chefs! Hence Farm Star Living was created — a website that connects people with farmers, fresh food and healthy living — in an entertaining way! 

Why did you choose to headquarter in Atlanta? 

I moved to Atlanta for a Southeastern ad sales job for Worth magazine back in the early ‘90s. I loved it so much here and planned to make it my home, but at 27 years old, I took a promotion to NYC, eventually leading to working with Wired just as they invented the ad banner. Being at the ground floor of the internet boom hooked me, and I later created my first internet company, Spa-Addicts.com; and with its success, I moved my headquarters to Beverly Hills. Fast forward to my taking over the farm, and by then, my brother had married a sweetheart from Atlanta and was raising a family here. And I finally got to realize my dream — making my home in Atlanta. I was here for Christmas 2010, and started my new life chapter. 

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

Choosing to keep my family farm, rather than sell it, and changing my life in order to do so. I had to walk away from a pretty cool life into the deep unknown. To a place without internet, heaven forbid! It was rather lonely, scary, and this would cause me to wonder what the heck I was doing with my life. But you know what, this life has been more rewarding than I could have ever dreamt. It led me here. I am in the city I always wanted to call my home, I live by my brother and his family, love my career, company is growing, have balance, lots of passion, and good health. I’m fortunate. 

Your biggest challenge? 

Keeping the business going! Ha! It is not easy to turn your passion and purpose into an actual business, and that is something I have to work at everyday — and often nights, too. It takes great people being beside you, sharing your vision and being willing to take a risk. It takes a lot of effort on different fronts to make a business successful. And there’s always a lot to be done! 

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions city-dwellers have about food and farming, and how do you hope to correct these? 

Kids say their food comes from the grocery stores, and I get it. There’s been a disconnect between the two worlds for a long time, but it’s changing. People now have a heightened desire to know who’s behind their food, what the company does to their food or how they grow it, and shoppers ultimately want to feel good about their food purchases. In fact, it is shoppers who are driving the changes that are slowly but surely reshaping the food industry. As shoppers become more aware, they are driving businesses to evolve. So many of the food growing companies are now going into organic as a result of growing demands, and employing sustainable practices using more environmentally sound and efficient protocols more than ever. My role is to encourage and educate people, in a non-preachy way, to look at where their food comes from, and from whom, and encourage a healthy lifestyle filled with farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. And that is Farm Star Livinto a tee!  

What does an ideal relationship between farmers and restaurants look like, in your opinion? 

Communication is always key and both should feel like they are in a win-win partnership. The chef should know how the crop is grown — for appreciation and also knowing what went into the process — and pay the farmer fairly and accordingly. Similarly, the farmer should know how his food is being received by the restaurants’ patrons, too. Perhaps a new soil or method made it even taste better than before? So, ideally, they should be in tandem with each other, and both should win. A fair price at which the items are sold/bought, and both should have an appreciation of how their product is not only grown, but ultimately received. 

What are your plans for the future? 

I want to bring this connection with our growers to life, and I am hosting my first event with many of the farming food companies I have gotten to know — and they are coming to Atlanta. I want others to get to know them, too, live and in person! So, at this Farm Star Living Product Harvest, a farm-to-everything showcase, there will be food and samples and chances to ask questions about how their food is grown and what makes their product worth putting on your grocery lists. I’d love for people to participate, but I have to keep it rather confined. So, please RSVP if you want to come! Outside of that, I hope to keep building my business one day at a time, and practicing what I preach. Or promote, I should say. Farm Star Living for us all!

Farm Star Living Product Harvest. Free with RSVP. 6-8 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 26th. W Hotel Midtown. 188 14th St. N.E. www.farmstarlivingproductharvest.com