NMRKT to Farmer’s Market: Julia Jacobson of Aster Farms

CEO and co-founder of Aster Farms, Julia Jacobson, is more than another cannabis industry transplant. Her background lies 3,000 miles away from the Northern California farm she cultivates, in the cutthroat world of fashion and the punishing paved blocks of New York City.

Setting new trends in a completely different universe altogether, Jacobson and the Aster Farms team are slated to contribute to cannabis consumer education in a major way. 

 

Aster Farms was established in 2016 in the Upper Lake region of Lake County, California. It is situated on 80 acres, and overlooks a beautiful valley of oaks, chaparral and grasslands speckled with olive orchards. With southern-facing orientation, the hill tops receive unobstructed sunlight and light winds, which add to the property’s unique terroir.

The farm is rising from the ashes of one of California’s largest wildfires, The Mendocino Complex Fire, which claimed several structures, a beloved cat (Harry), hundreds of plants, and wiped out some of the property’s popular strains. 

Now, the Aster Farms teams is focused on building a strong, sustainable brand, backed by decades of combined entrepreneurial experience in fields including business and fashion. 

“It was five and a half years of non-stop work, blood, sweat, and tears.”—J. Jacobson. Photo by Christopher Guerra

The backbone of Aster Farms was created through a strong work ethic that Jacobson and president of Aster Farms/husband, Sam Ludwig, honed by going hard in New York’s creative scene; her as an entrepreneur and him as a producer.

Jacobson’s NMRKT was an online platform launched in 2010 that enabled blogs and magazines to launch niche ecommerce storefronts. Using affiliate marketing to connect audiences to products that they actually could see themselves wearing, NMRKT helped foster a more authentic proto-influencer culture that was brewing at the time. The company was acquired by XO Group in 2016, and the technology is still being used by The Knot today. 

This connection now seems so natural—but back then, we were largely Instagram-less and our digital lives were spread through multiple social media platforms—so NMRKT was quite ahead of its time by creating this type of advertising capability.

Aster Farms CEO, Julia Jacobson. Photo by Christopher Guerra

Jacobson tells the Emerald, “I was a buyer at Bloomingdales previously, and so I really intimately understood some of the problems in the supply chain, and how those dots were not connecting between what was in the market.”

This meant that getting the products that bloggers were wearing and promoting into waiting customer hands was not a smooth process. But carving out her own spot in the fashion world meant countless meetings, hours, and self determination. 

“I think it all comes down to just being passionate about something, and investors really resonate with that. It was tough, though, running a company and raising money is really [rough],” Jacobson says. “It was five and a half years of non-stop work, blood, sweat, and tears.” 

Branding is still new in the cannabis industry, but in fashion it is quite literally everything. Quality, creativity, or origin is what sometimes distinguishes one product from another—however, it is marketing that cultivates the audience for these individual products.

Jacobson says this is a founding principal of brand development in both sectors, “Whether you’re selling cannabis, or clothes, or handbags, understanding who your consumer is and building a product for your consumer is super important,” she explains. “Understanding how to market a brand and the intricacies of using influencers, [for example] there are cannabis influencers, whose career has come full circle,” are all key similarities, she adds. 

She often looks to Ludwig too, saying, “he really understands what it means to articulate a brand to consumers. I think that’s one of the most important things happening in this emerging cannabis industry right now; this is the first time brands have ever existed.” 

Aster Farms and other brands of this wave are creating their destiny, some of them from scratch. In Jacobson’s case, she had to learn the cultivation basics from the ground up—an exciting prospect for a self-described learning obsessive. 

Sun grown ladies. Photo By Christopher Guerra

After I was running NMRKT for about six years, I was really burnt out. I wanted nothing to do with anything digital. I just wanted to put my hands in the dirt, but I didn’t even know what that meant,” Jacobson says. “I stayed up all night until 4 a.m. researching soil nutrients and just was getting super into it. I have this bug in me that when I get super focused on some interesting topic, I go down the rabbit hole, and cannabis was fascinating.”

When busting out double work weeks, passion for the topic at hand is a must, and Jacobson’s researching impulses served her in fashion, just as they do now in cannabis. 

She says, “Whether it’s learning about regulations, learning about the ways it is affecting our communities, whether it’s the plant science, every single day there is something to learn.”

As for coming full circle back to New York when cannabis makes its way into the stigma-free lexicon, Jacobson and the Aster Farms team will be ready. Just like she used savvy fashion wiles to create a whole new way of connecting customers, strong branding principles and a body of experience would make Aster Farms a brilliant product offering in New York—especially with the finely selected strains they are known for on the West Coast.

I cannot wait to sell Aster Farms products in New York one day, she tells the Emerald, “and that is absolutely the plan. Each market is completely different and it’s going to take a couple of years for us to see how every market is rolling out.”

A typical scene at Aster Farms. Photo By Christopher Guerra

“New York is going to bring a vibe that Aster Farms is all about,” she continues. “Right now, California cannabis is really one of the few markets that are branded in a real, CPG [consumer packaged goods] branded kind of way. New York has an edge and a style that will be really well accepted in this industry […].”

All in all, people who work in both fields will one day realize their parallel strengths, lessons, and possibilities, just as Jacobson has, and one can only hope that this makes the selection—and the product’s effects—as elevated as the concepts. 

Aster Farms is available at locations, including CAC Venice, Sweet Flower, Harborside, and via SAVA delivery in California.

You can also visit their farm and learn more on regenerative farming and sustainable land stewardship practices during the 2019 HB Field Trip: Healing Earth and Community presented by Humble Bloom on October 25-27.
Emerald contributor since May 2017

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