Farm to Feet celebrates its fifth-year anniversary, and it’s difficult to believe that such a well-oiled company was introduced as recently as the 2013 Outdoor Retailer winter show. Despite the brand’s choice to specialize in what was perceived by many as a saturated market—technical hiking socks— they figured out a formula that differentiated their brand. The socks took off.
The company has grown from less than 40 doors in 2013 to more than 1,000 doors in U.S. and Canada. It supports more than 2,000 jobs in the U.S., and most are in the Carolinas.
“I immediately saw eye rolls at the first Outdoor Retailer when we introduced Farm to Feet,” said Michael Collin, director Pale Morning Media, who has been partnered with Farm to Feet since the brand launched. “The idea that another sock brand was launching made people ask, ‘How different could this sock company possibly be?’”
“Once [the industry] saw the product and heard the story, people realized it wasn’t a fly-by-night operation—these guys have their own factory,” said Collin.
Superwashing solidified Farm to Feet's early success
Timing was key. Farm to Feet leveraged the network of Nester Hosiery—which was founded two decades earlier by Marty Nester—to engage with every potential business partner.
The outreach of Kelly Nester, CEO, and Marty Nester would have been all for naught if the American Wool Council, a division of the American Sheep Industry, had not invested superwash machinery. In a partnership with Chargeurs Wool, the technology allowed wool to be processed via this shrink-resistant treatment for the first time on U.S. soil.
“We recognized the need for the superwash," said Rita Samuelson, deputy director, American Wool Council. "It was available in other parts of the world but not in U.S. There are other shrink-resistant processes, but they are not as dependable. This process reaches the fiber, is more reliable and it’s consistent."
The superwash paved the road for Farm to Feet to be completely American-made.
Why retailers love Farm to Feet
“Their transparency stood out more than anything,” said Chuck Millsaps, president of Great Outdoor Provision Co., which partnered with Farm to Feet one year after the brand’s launch. Farm to Feet is now at least 50 percent of the total sock sales in the shop.
“We toured their factories. We had opportunity to meet everyone in their offices," he said. "The brand’s foundation was built on authenticity, and how to expand distribution with a sustainable, helpful, targeted focus rather than exploding across retail."
In Millsaps’ shop, the Damascus and Greensboro models consistently sell. But when consumers learn about Farm to Feet’s community involvement, product sales branched into the brand’s lifestyle collection, too, explained Millsaps.
To point: Farm to Feet partnered on the retailer’s in-store kiosk to celebrate the Mountain-to-Sea Trail and Great Outdoor Provision Co.'s goal to fundraise $25,000 for the trail’s development and protection.
“Farm to Feet was the primary sock in that display and was giving back to the cause," Millsaps said. "Customers saw it and understood the brand’s commitment to the preservation and conservation of our local mountain opportunities."
Boiled down, the ingredients of the brand’s impressive growth include transparency across the supply chain, a commitment to being 100-percent American-made, and the brand’s celebration of the human stories connected to their success.
Beyond marketing materials, these components of the brand are real. Farm to Feet cares about the relationships with their partners.
“As the outdoor industry gets larger, less personal, and more corporate, we especially reach for partnerships that are very personal, and with brands that have a clear understanding of who we are,” said Water Stone Outdoors co-owner Maura Kistler.
Kistler and her husband, Gene Kistler, founded the New River Alliance of Climbers, which promotes and preserves climbing areas and resources in the New River Gorge.
This year, Farm to Feet helped to support the nonprofit’s annual service project, called the (Not) Work Week: an eight day volunteer event with 25 volunteers per day provide service trail work. Farm to Feet’s $300 donation helped to support the crew and the brand provided a sock giveaway for each day.
“Farm to Feet makes an incredible product with a wonderful story,” Kistler said. “And when a brand is tuned into your story and says, ‘We want to work together,’ that’s music to my ears. That’s the ultimate form of flattery. We are a tiny shop, but we have an important reputation and they value us.”
Beyond conservation efforts, Farm to Feet invests time in strengthening the outdoor industry’s network.
The brand became a member of the Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, a guild for the region’s companies to collaborate, share resources, and inspire fresh ideas.
The coalition gathered earlier this month in Asheville, NC, for the Confluence process: a multi-state initiative to develop a national platform for the outdoor recreation industry.
Farm to Feet quadruples growth in five years
“To see their brand grow from inception to where they are now, in five years, is impressive. We’re a consultant and their PR agency, but it’s been a partnership. I'm proud of their growth, and we feel that we share in their successes,” said Collin.
By 2014, Farm to Feet quadrupled in size. In 2015, it grew by 50 percent, followed by 90-percent growth the next year. Growth in 2017 was projected at 65 percent. The brand is on track to reach its expectations, said Petri.
“Their success is in part due to the time that they spent on front-end planning and the brand’s tight narrative,” said Collin. “Their capabilities as a manufacturer make them look more mature than they are—but, it’s more than a story. It’s the basis of who they are as a brand,” he said.