Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returnsto Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission pricewhile our early bird special lasts.
There’s romance in picturing a farmer-chef relationship in which detailed conversations about heirloom carrot quality and pastured lamb availability precede every order, and plenty of those do exist.
However, to more quickly scale up the volume of local food getting into New York City food service establishments, entrepreneurs have come up with what they see as a more practical solution: apps.
Farms2Tables, based in Rhinebeck, is thriving, with about 100 farms selling their food to 450 wholesale buyers in the New York Metro area. Meanwhile, a new player, Foodshed.io, which uses innovative blockchain technology (more on that later), is just getting off the ground. And both have plans to take their models to other regions soon.
“I definitely would love to spend that time and go cultivate all the relationships with the farms, but…the time isn’t really there, so being able to put that trust in somebody else’s judgment is…amazing,” says chef Stephen Almond, who’s been using Foodshed.io to source ingredients for meals served at Manhattan co-working and community space The Assemblage.
In local food, past apps have mostly focused on connecting small farmers directly to individual consumers, and many have struggled or flat-out failed. At the same time, the companies that have sprung up to connect small farms to wholesale buyers—like innovative Hudson Valley Harvest—have been more focused on supply chain logistics than on technology.
These companies combine the tech savvy of the former with the logistical components of the latter to get local food from small, sustainable farms into restaurants, grocery stores, schools, nursing homes and corporate cafeterias.
Before Farms2Tables launched in 2015, co-founder Patricia Wind says she looked at a lot of the local food tech companies that were failing and noticed the lack of focus on distribution infrastructure. “They were just platforms for farmers and buyers to make the connection and sales transaction, “ she says. “We knew very early on…that we had to be a full-service solution.”
Wind and her team designed software that users see as a simple app. Farmers control how they list and price their food; buyers scroll through offerings from different farms and click to order. But in the background, the system takes care of processing orders, registering pick-ups and drop offs, routing and more. Farmers using the system have wireless printers to print bar codes that go on their boxes, and Farms2Tables’ trucks pick up the boxes and then head to a rally point in Rhinebeck where boxes are rearranged for delivery routes. There is no warehousing involved. Instead, the food moves from farm to institution within about a day.
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At PRINT restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, Meghan Boledovich (whose official title is “forager”) usually orders rabbits, honey and honeycomb via Farms2Tables each week. She sees it as one source among many, with benefits like access to more local purveyors than a traditional distributor like Baldor offers, and competitive pricing. “We trust all the products on the app that they source, but we do prefer to work directly with some farms at the Greenmarket, like Paffenroth Gardens,” she says.
Rose Karabush grows vegetables and raises pigs and sheep at Maitri Farm in Duchess County and has sold her food via Farms2Tables in a few instances. She says that while most small-scale sustainable farmers initially prefer to sell via farmers markets and CSAs to avoid working with middlemen who take a percentage of profits, they often find, after doing the work for a while, that the tangential benefits can outweigh the cost.
“A lot of farmers are realizing as long as you’re working with responsible people who are working with you and trying to help you succeed, it can be helpful to not have to both manage a farm and do all of your deliveries and sales, and particularly responding to customers who want more flexibility and are used to ordering more things,” she says.
In fact, after word got out about Farms2Tables, Wind couldn’t keep up with the number of farmers who wanted to be added to the system. She started a waiting list in 2017, and it now has about 90 farms on it. “It’s all been word of mouth,” she says. “I haven’t reached out to one since the first 20.” She’s also looking to replicate the model elsewhere and currently has plans to launch in a new region by 2020.
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The fact that Foodshed.io sees the space as still ripe for growth, then, is no surprise. The app launched in January 2018 and began processing orders in the New York area in March. Because it’s so new, numbers are hard to come by, but co-founder Daniel Beckmann says “several thousand dollars a week are moving through.” Their team also is almost set to launch in a second region, in Missouri, where a deal with a 100-store grocery chain will mean they’ll be up and running at a large scale quite quickly.
In addition to the fact that farmers may not have the time or skill set to deal with business logistics like marketing, orders, and deliveries, another Foodshed.io co-founder, Clare Sullivan, notes that most of the farmers registering on the app would not otherwise have access to many of the buyers Foodshed.io is connecting them to. “Small-scale producers might have volume limits that exclude them from big buyers like large restaurant groups and institutions,” she says. If you aggregate the food, volume appears. “The real value is if you can get these bigger buyers to buy more local food, that’s a huge opportunity for local growers to sell into bigger markets.”
When you talk to those with boots on the ground, though, blockchain software still seems to play second fiddle to the grunt work of moving food from farm to eatery.
And Foodshed.io’s big differentiator is its use of blockchain technology. Blockchain is a sort of digital ledger that allows transactions to be recorded so that records are traceable step-by-step. It is currently being talked about as a solution to all kinds of food system issues, from tracing contamination back to its source when supply chains are long and complex to helping farmers streamline data on organic production and track inputs and other data in the field.
Intuitively, regional food systems seem to already be set up for transparency, since farms and buyers are closely linked, but Sullivan says blockchain technology will keep that transparency intact—and enhance and formalize it—as more aggregation is introduced. “We think blockchain can really reduce friction in the supply chain,” she says. “It makes it easy for us to have a package of produce and know where it is at all times and make sure everyone is paid quickly.”
When you talk to those with boots on the ground, though, the software still seems to play second fiddle to the grunt work of moving food from farm to eatery.
“They pick up and they deliver, which is why it’s preferable over direct sale,” says Shayna Lewis, who has used Foodshed.io to sell greens from her Orange County farm, Dirty Boots. “The percentage they take is well below what we’d be spending on gas and tolls to get to the city.”
After a few years of running Farms2Tables, Wind would not be surprised by that farmer input. “The tech is what facilitates the logistics, transactions, inventory, creates routes,” she says, “but really, we’re a trucking company. That’s what gets the job done.”