Vanessa Bazalgette, a Googler with rural roots, supports small farms to accelerate their growth online
Vanessa Bazalgette is a Google employee in New York City who grew up in rural New Hampshire and studied food industry management as an undergraduate at Cornell University. Inspired by fond childhood memories of tending to vegetable gardens and selling her family’s produce locally, she now hosts ongoing live events to help farmers learn the online marketing skills necessary to compete in today’s digital economy. “Smaller rural farming communities often struggle to adopt new technologies, compared to larger industrial farms that have more scale,” Vanessa says, explaining why she is so passionate about giving back to farming communities like the one she was raised in.
According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report 39% percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared to 4% of urban Americans. Illustrating an encouraging, positive trend, recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal the gap between rural and urban Internet access is narrowing, with farmers leading the way. However, the same USDA study also shows that it is the larger rural farms, with $250,000 or more in sales, which tend to have wider access to digital business tools compared to all other U.S. farms, indicating a digital divide exists. A full 85% of wealthier American farms have computers, for example, while only 47% of all U.S. farms do.
Working with the Accelerate with Google events program, which empowers any Google employee to host free, public workshops on online marketing in underrepresented communities around the world, Vanessa welcomes rural New York State farmers to Google’s offices to learn the basics of Google My Business to get their farms online.
“When you have an amazing product that people can benefit from, it’s a no brainer to share it with them,” says Vanessa, who has also co-developed a program with Matthew Kelleher called Get Your Farm Online to offer digital-marketing training for farmers. With Thanksgiving around the corner in the United States and fresh, delicious food on so many Americans’ minds, Vanessa sat down with us to share more about the Get Your Farm Online movement and how anyone can help support smaller farms as they embark on their digital journeys, grow their businesses, and drive economic impact in their rural communities, too.
What inspired you to create the Get Your Farm Online initiative at Google?
I’m fortunate to work with food companies that really inspire me in my day job supporting ad sales at Google. It is amazing to see how technology transforms these businesses. With my community based background having grown up in a small town in New Hampshire, I’m always thinking: how can I have an impact on communities that extend beyond Google?
In terms of supporting farms, I am focused on identifying the immediate needs of the rural community and matching those needs with the immediate gives from the tech community. My goal is to align the need and the give to drive the largest impact. I’ve seen the economic impact technology can bring, especially in rural areas. Just getting these businesses on the map can bring explosive business growth. That’s where we need to start - with the fundamentals.
For example, if you’re near Chelsea Market and you Google search “farm,” you’ll see a number of businesses pop up. They have raised their hand saying, “I’m a business that cares about the farm to table market.” If you make that same query in Hudson Valley, you see nothing on the map. Businesses aren’t raising their hand to say, “I’m here with fresh produce,” or whatever it may be. That’s challenging because people are using mobile search to find what they’re looking for. If you’re not present, you’ll be challenged to get people to come to you. Likewise, people could miss out on a great solution that rural companies can provide.
What are the biggest challenges of getting farms online?
There are two large challenges I see. First and foremost, Get Your Farm Online wants to find people that have the need and want to get online and help them do that. In some places internet access is so limited people can’t get online. We’re working with charities like Farm On! Foundation to reach farmers who aren’t online.
The second challenge is with farmers that don’t have the interest to develop an online presence. I don’t want to force anyone to get online if it’s not something they want, but I do think education never hurts. That way, the community can make a decision based on all their options.
What do your recommend for those who want to get online but don’t have internet access?
Across the US, there are public libraries and central hubs where trainings can be hosted. There are resources, but it’s a matter of being scrappy to find infrastructure that’s in place and also working with community leaders to help drive change.
Why is this an important time to support farmers getting online?
This is community work. It’s all about working together. A metaphor is Thanksgiving, which is really about people coming together. Everyone brings different things to the table and you need collaboration to have a complete meal. It’s a great analogy for what we can do when technology and small business owners meet. The tech side has the infrastructure and farmers have all these delicious, nutritious foods but often struggle to share them directly with consumers. This isn’t just about getting businesses online, it extends far beyond that. Getting a business listed is the first step in allowing them to realize the impact technology can have.
Similarly, I could not have created the Get Your Farm Online movement without partnership from an amazing Google community. Matthew Kelleher, Christina Pungerchar, Lauren Mobyed, and all members of NYC Farm to Table community have been instrumental in bringing this effort to life!
How can people support rural communities in both digital and non-digital ways?
If you have a skill you think can benefit farmers, reach out to a farming foundation near you and volunteer time. The ask on the farming side is to not be shy about asking for help. Reach out to a foundation or attend one of our trainings! (More info here.) Technology empowers small companies to have a voice. As a technology provider, we can share this democratizing force. This is about all sides coming together in pursuit of a larger end goal.
You can try out Google's tools for small businesses, too: