Bay Area’s Small Farmers Take to Selling Excess Crops Online
CropMobster grew organically, like everything else at Sonoma County’s Bloomfield Farms. The website connects individuals and nonprofits with food producers who offer items for deep discount or donation and, in the process, help tackle the perennial problem of waste.
“Food insecurity, farmer insecurity, waste and then the transfer of knowledge to the next generation,” said Nick Papadopoulos, the family farm’s general manager. “I see those as some of the four biggest issues we face, and that’s what we’re experimenting with at Bloomfield Farms.”
The idea is that anyone in the local food business can sign up to post big lots of products. Anyone can also sign up to receive the alerts – individuals, nonprofits, restaurants. Papadopoulos’ co-founders include farmers and technologists.
Since the site started six weeks ago, Papadopoulos said it has hooked up more than 11,000 pounds of farm produce with everyone from food banks to groups of neighbors getting together for a meal.
The site doesn’t just deal in crops. The Sonoma Humane Society used CropMobster to find homes for 30 egg-laying chickens at risk of being put to sleep. And a grass-fed cattle ranch sold 100 pounds of bones for stock. There also have been deals on used irrigation tape and young strawberry plants. A USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey in 2011 highlighted the tight financial spot that small farms in California are in, said Shermain Hardesty, the leader of UC’s Small Farm Program. Hardesty said the survey found the average net cash farm income for small family farms in California was just $9,403.
You can start to see how $100 here and there can make a big difference.
That was the case for Louis and Karen McKenzie, owners of Twin Palms Ranch near Santa Rosa. When hot weather pushed rows of their lettuce up early, they were able to get $100 for it (that’s a 70 percent discount) by posting the unharvested crop on CropMobster and then picking it fresh as soon as they had a taker – in this case a restaurant.
McKenzie said another benefit from CropMobster is the attention the site has brought to their 5-acre farm. Their Web traffic has surged since the new site launched.
“It also introduced us to a lot of other new clients,” McKenzie said. “Both restaurants and nonprofits. We got phone numbers and lists of other places that might take our product.”
While CropMobster seems to be unique in its mission connecting small farms with a wide range of consumers and nonprofits, there are other organizations and websites out there tackling different pieces of the waste problem, which is not insignificant.
Dana Gunders, who researches food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said a recent study found that in some cases 30 percent of food doesn’t make it off farms. She thinks CropMobster addresses one of the main problems with waste.
“That is, that it’s often spontaneous, it’s inconsistent, and it’s hard for anyone to really build a business of this,” she says. “So the way the technology can enable this more organic solution is really powerful.”
Gunders said apps and websites are also popping up that connect larger farms with food banks.
There’s Food Cowboy, a new venture that wants to use technology “to help truckers and food companies route fresh produce to charities instead of to landfills.” The idea is to use the web to match those who need food with buyers who may have rejected a load.
And a company based in San Francisco – FoodStar – is experimenting with the grocer Andronico’s to cheaply market commercial produce that doesn’t meet some standards, like an apple that is 37 percent rather than 40 percent red.
In Champaign, Ill., a group has gotten together saying they will send hunger relief organizations text alerts when restaurants have leftovers. The website for Zero Percent says, “We created this system to make it as simple as possible for restaurants to donate food, and hence encourage donations of prepared and perishable yet edible food.”
There does seem to be an increasing focus on reducing waste in the food chain. Because the waste happens at so many points, it will require multiple interventions.
Bloomfield’s Nick Papadopoulos said he’s excited by the opportunities CropMobster can offer farmers, food banks and everyday people who’d like to support their local foodshed.
At its core, he says, it’s not a new concept. But the technology is.
“Gleaning is not a new tradition. What we need to do is think about using the new tools and the communities out there to take it to the next level.”