FARMINGTON — As a young farmer, it’s hard setting yourself apart from the crowd.

Andy Marble said when he and his wife Sarah first started a small farming venture eight years ago, it was hard to find a way to make their farm seem unique compared with other farmers also setting up stands at farmers markets and starting community supported agriculture networks.

The Marbles have since started marketing a new product — frozen pocket meals called Hotties — but Marble said when trying to experiment with new products, there’s a lot of advice in the agriculture industry on how to grow food but not as much on how to market a product.

“We’re good at producing a product, but getting your product in the hands of your customer is another whole challenge,” Marble said. “We know how to grow it, but maybe not why people buy it.”

In the coming year, Marble Family Farms owners Andy and Sarah Marble will work on improving their website, attending more vendor events, sprucing up packaging and trying to expand the customer base with a $49,998 matching grant from a program with the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Value Added Producer Grants are aimed at entrepreneurs adding value to their crops.

The Marbles run the business with Andy’s parents, Richard and Weslene Marble, who also own the land, as well as Sarah’s father, Doug Winslow.

If all goes according to plan with the grant, Andy Marble said he and Sarah will build up the business to make it a full-time job for them instead of something he balances with work on the side, and they will be able to hire two more part-time workers.

“It’s hard to make a full living from it,” he said.

Marble said they have been working to improve their lot when the couple started growing some small crops at Andy Marble’s parents’ farm on Holley Road, a four-generation farm that had been reduced to a homestead for decades.

They started attending farmers markets and started a community supported agriculture network, but Marble said the more they diversified, the less efficient their startup became. There also was a lot of competition from young farmers trying to run their own organic startups.

They started a bakery, but Marble said they wanted a way to use the baking room to make something with what they were growing on the farm. The market was already saturated with frozen pizzas, but eventually they discovered pre-cooked frozen pocket meals as a way to make a product with vegetables from their own greenhouses.

Two years ago, soon after they started producing Hotties, Marble said he learned about the Value Added Producer Grants. He realized the Hotties were a good example of adding value to his crops.

The program was out of money in 2013, but in 2014 they applied and were granted the matching funds.

Marble Farms was one of five small agricultural businesses to get a total of $471,571 from the federal program, with businesses in Buxton, Hiram, Sanford and South Bristol also getting the grant money. The projects are estimated to save 46 jobs while creating an additional 21 new jobs.

A press release from 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said funding for the USDA grants has risen dramatically — from $15 million to $63 million over five years— due to an increase included in the 2014 Farm Bill.

“Now we can start expanding across the state,” said Marble.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

[email protected]

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