This week we’re featuring the town of Harrington, Washington (pop. 424) and sharing some of the stories of rural revival happening here! Today’s guest blog post is from Julie Jacobsen, an agvocate, cattle ranch wife and mom, and founder of Ag Swag. Welcome, Julie!
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Where It All Started
It was 5th grade. Harrington, Washington. Mrs. Moeller’s class.
I remember well when my teacher Grace Moeller started a currency system for our class. There were various ways to earn the crisp, fake, laminated bills, but what stands out the most was Friday afternoon, when a market of sorts was held right at our desk. We arranged ourselves in a large square and set up shop. The idea of exchanging goods for “fake cash” appealed to me very much. And this is where the entrepreneurial seed was planted. Mrs. Moeller also taught us how to balance a checkbook, write cursive, and she read “Old Yeller” to us as a group. There was something about watching her read that fascinated me, something that made her human as her voice cracked when she read the sad parts.
The currency system probably wouldn’t fly in most schools today, certainly not our open market — the goods were brought from home, mostly treats our mom made, sometimes just left over “stuff” or a re-gifted item — but I will always look back on that year and be grateful for the impact those lessons had on me.
Fast forward 32 years and I’m back in the house I lived in when I was in 5th grade, and still business-minded. My husband, Dirk, and I ranch in Eastern Washington and are now raising our three boys, Colton (19), Luke (17), and Cass (3), where I grew up. That last bit could be an interesting story all in itself. Throw in some cattle, cow dogs, chickens, and a haying season that never seems to end, and you have the makings of what tends to be a never monotonous life.
Dirk and I will celebrate our 23rd anniversary just after our youngest turns three this year. For most of our marriage, and as we grew our herd, I held a job in the nearby town of Davenport. While still working it became frequent that I would be asked to run for parts before work, then help move machinery after work. Weekends consisted of working with cattle in some form. I left my job working for the county almost four years ago to be more available to our ranch. Even though our older boys became extremely helpful, there was always more to do as we grew our herd and then of course our family. We had Cass in 2016 and my role on the ranch took a different turn. Looking for ways to create income from home while chasing a toddler, Ag Swag was born. I created a website where I could blog, and also design and sell ag-related hats and items that are unique and customizable. There is disconnect from farm to table for the average consumer, so sharing what we do through this platform has become a lifeline of its own for us.
If I’m going to be completely transparent here, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I thought I could keep this anonymous. Yep, launch a website in a rural area and nobody would ever know it was me. Like a ghostwriter for a website. Makes perfect sense.
Why, you ask? Why would I want to be silent about this?
Well, what if it failed? What if I go through putting in the time, designing a site, investing in the cost, etc. and crickets chirp? Then one afternoon I was enjoying a latte at The Post & Office and wanted to pick the owner Heather’s brain about her ideas and thought process when she launched her business. I asked, “What did people say when you asked what they thought about the idea of a coffee shop here?” Simple as that, she replied, “We didn’t ask anyone, we just did it.”
What a fantastic idea.
By the time I shared my idea with some of my closest friends, the Ag Swag website was near complete and inventory was flowing in. A side note: Ag Swag was originally going to be a drop ship company. After all, we are a working cattle ranch with teenagers and a toddler. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of extra time for the site to be hands on with shipment of goods, but I’m also old fashioned and a little particular about customer service. I want adorable tractor print tissue paper to be the first thing my customers see when they open an Ag Swag package. I want to touch the product I’m sending out, feel the quality, and drop shipping overall just wasn’t a good fit.
One year later our pace is manageable but with growth, growth every month. A business owner can’t ask for anything more.
What exactly is Ag Swag?
We create and curate items for the agvocate, a person living in rural America who wants a little swag that is fresh and dare I say cool? Yes, I think my products are cool. They are unique and I know they are cool because I see people of all ages make a beeline to my booth when I’m a vendor at shows. The men pick up my hats, turn them over to see they are Richardson brand hats, nod with approval, and are ready to purchase. The women (this makes me smile every time) come over to my set up with a little puzzled look, and I can lip read they are reading my signs. “If you want to change the world, go home and love your herd.” Then they get a closer look at one of our logos on a tumbler and say, “This is actually really cute.” Actually, we agree.
Hats, hoodies, signs, drink tumblers, pencils, jewelry, key chains with our logo — which started with a cattle tag and the number 509 printed on it. If I saw someone wearing this original logo I would think first, that person raises livestock in Eastern Washington. If they don’t actually raise the animal they support someone that does. Washington State is comprised of six area codes. If you took the state and drew a line right down the middle separating Western and Eastern Washington, the left side is our more populated side boasting all but one area code...509...which is reserved for the right side of the state and definitely our more rural side of Washington that is brimming with agriculture. The logos and cattle tags are customizable and we have customers from ID, MT, WY, OR, OH, IA, ND, SD, MO, CA, UT, and TX. We’d love to send one to every state, every area code. We sell retail but take wholesale orders and customize as well.
The benefits to my rural area with my web-based business are similar to a storefront. I pay taxes just like any other business. I’ve sponsored youth in ag areas, and network with other local businesses. While I don’t have a storefront, I consign Ag Swag at the local coffee shop I mentioned in Harrington, and because of that, when I drive down my gravel road and meet the highway, I turn left more than I used to. Once my oldest son graduated school in Harrington, there wasn’t a huge pull to take me in that direction. I would often turn right and do my errands in Davenport. Davenport is six miles further away, but it’s the county seat, and simply out of habit from working at the courthouse for 18 years, my brain is programmed to turn right at the end of my driveway. The beauty of The Post & Office coffee and gift shop for me is its proximity and the quality of unique items they already carry. Now that I’m dropping off product to the shop, I’m also getting gas more often in Harrington; groceries, banking, and the post office now get more of my business as well. Turning left instead of right at the bottom of my drive benefits my small town in more ways than one. It’s a domino effect for sure; every new business that sets up shop in a rural area benefits from each other.
Ag Swag will be one year old on September 1. My goals the first year were to have a set amount in sales, have two businesses carry our products, have shipped to three other states, and complete as many pop up events and shows as I could squeeze in. We are meeting and exceeding all of our goals for the first year. We will now be more selective with our shows, branching out to new areas and keeping the venues on our calendar that were warm, welcome, and lucrative. The shows are fantastic because this is where we meet the people — our customers.
As I trail off, the best advice I would leave anyone attempting something new in a rural area is within a quote:
I don’t know who originally quoted this but it’s been a lifesaver for my new business. I needed to remind myself daily to stop inquiring about business advice or feel the need to bounce ideas off of people, but certainly not people who have never been where I’m going. I took Heather’s lead on this and stopped asking people what they thought, and just did my best to create the vision I had and what worked for me and my family.
New businesses and unique ideas are as contagious to a rural area as ideas that nay say and create “what if” problems. I’d much prefer to be on the reviving end of growth and community, planting those seeds everywhere! Life is a field, so farm it.
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Ag Swag is located among the wheat and hayfields between Harrington and
Davenport, Washington, and social media sites near you.
Find out more about the rural revival happening in Harrington, Washington here: