A recent article on Civil Eats asked whether food tech - the kind that allows consumers to order directly from farmers through online purchasing systems - really helps farmers. There has been a bumper crop of food tech startups in recent years, and it seems that not all of them are actually helping farmers connect with consumers or grow their businesses.
Among the problems the author points out with these web-based ordering platforms is the issue of “last-mile” logistics: getting food to customers. That’s something that aggregation and distribution food hubs do really well, and most, including us, are using technology to do it.
Take the two food hubs Food Connects manages, Windham Farm and Food in Vermont and Modnadnock Menus in New Hampshire. Here’s how they work: a producer posts what he has available that week (salad greens, carrots, bagels, or yogurt). Meanwhile, a buyer (a restaurant, hospital, school chef, or other wholesale buyer) goes online to see what’s available that week from all the producers (farmers, bakeries, dairies, etc.) represented by the food hub. She puts together an order in a single online cart and checks out before the weekly deadline. On the other end, each producer gets a list of what’s been purchased that week. Producers don’t need to know where each thing is going, just that they need to pack up 50 pounds of carrots or ten cases of yogurt. The food hub driver then picks up all of the food, portions it out, and delivers it to the buyers, who are invoiced through the online system. The buyers pay the food hub, the food hub pays the producers.
For the buyers, it’s like they’re purchasing from a single seller. For the producers, it’s like they’re selling to a single buyer. The technology in the middle—a platform called Harvest to Market-is the necessary glue to providing the "last-mile" delivery services that farmers and buyers need. It is often prohibitively expensive for a farmer to maintain a big group of small buyers. For each one the farmer must handle marketing, product availability notices, order-taking, invoicing, deliveries, payments, customer service, and more. Many buyers face similar, time-consuming hurdles to sourcing directly from farms. We take on that coordination overhead so that farmers can focus on building their business and so that chefs have more space to focus on their food.
Our status as a nonprofit offers a few other advantages over for-profit tech startups. Unlike a startup, we can take the time required to cultivate low-return buyers like schools and other institutions. We provide the technical assistance needed to get them on board with ordering and, in some cases, help them change their kitchen culture to incorporate fresh produce and local products. These buyers are traditionally not worth a farmers’ time to go after as customers, but they represent a significant market: our two food hubs have just passed $1 million in business, representing new markets opened in this way.
Having a food hub manager helps in another way: maintaining relationships between farmers and customers. This isn’t just a tech interface. It’s a tech-enabled human interaction. We work hard to build relationships between buyers and sellers, and to make communication, special requests, and feedback easy and effective. We are constantly asking our buyers what they're looking for from our farmers so that we can work, as a producer network, to better meet buyers' needs.
In short, technology makes it possible for us to partner with farmers to open new markets and make the process of buying and selling easier for everyone. It allows buyers who would otherwise have limited access to local food—like schools—to purchase from small farmers and contribute to the local economy. And it makes connecting the right buyers with the right sellers a lot easier.
Tech CAN help farmers. It just has to be used in the right way.
- Alex McCullough, Richard Berkfield, and Allyson Wendt