Author Archives: Fr Admin

Agri-Marketing News ~ FarmsReach Launches Online Platform for Non-GMO Seeds

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FarmsReach, the Berkeley-based social enterprise for farmers and ranchers, announced a pilot e-commerce platform for non-GMO, sustainable seeds at the Organic Seed Alliance Conference in Corvallis, Ore.

When it debuts later this year, FarmsReach’s Sustainable Seed Marketplace will be the first online source of its kind, an e-marketplace for non-GMO seeds from a mix of seed distributors, enhanced with anecdotal seed performance data from North American farmers. With the Marketplace, farmers can comparison-shop and make wish lists and annotations, viewable only by them, as they strategize for upcoming crops.

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Sustainable Food News ~ New Website Like Yelp for California Farmers

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The FarmsReach Source Directory, the first online business directory for California farmers, was launched today by the Berkeley-based social enterprise, FarmsReach. The website links FarmsReach member farmers with approved providers of everything from deer fences to irrigation systems, as well as farm-friendly service providers like lenders, contractors and nonprofit organizations.

“Think of it as a Yelp for farmers,” said FarmsReach founder Melanie Cheng, referring to the widely used “crowdsourcing” website for consumers. “Farmers get most of their referrals by word-of-mouth from fellow farmers. Our online directory makes it easier for everyone to learn who does good work or offers quality services, so they can make smarter, more informed choices.”

Inspiration for the Source Directory came from the successes of similar offerings by social enterprises and farmer co-ops in Asia and Europe, which provide farmers with vital connections to trusted suppliers. “Directories like this for the U.S. agriculture community are long overdue,” Cheng said.

Founded in 2007, FarmsReach has grown to more than 600 members – primarily farmers, but also farm-related nonprofits, Cooperative Extension advisors, and providers of materials and services to the agriculture community. “We launched in California, our home base, but many of the online and offline resources we provide can be equally useful in other regions. We hope to expand our directory services into other parts of the country soon,” said Cheng.

FarmsReach adds new members daily while also creating collaborative, working relationships with organizations that serve its farmer members. “We’re driven completely by our members and partner organizations. Together, we are building a true support system for the agriculture community,” Cheng said. Continue Reading →


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Seedstock ~ To Create Sustainable Food System, FarmsReach Focuses on Tools to Help Farmers Streamline Business Operations

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by Matt Wilhalme

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.07.09 PMWhen FarmsReach launched in 2007 it sought to facilitate connections between farmers and buyers by focusing its efforts on resolving food distribution issues with an online portal to help local farmers get their produce into the hands of consumers and address the increasing demand for organic regionally grown food.

But after the product scaled to 26 states, at a time when founder Melanie Cheng expected these marketplaces to boom and locally grown produce to become available in more and more places, transactions and volumes decreased. The main problem, according to Cheng, wasn’t the venue or point of sale, it was the “pre-marketplace.”

“Ultimately, there are a lot of different obstacles to creating a truly sustainable food system and a lot of them initiate from farms’ lack of business skills, business resources and general viability,” said Cheng. “We need to rehabilitate farming as an occupation.”

Cheng’s new focus with FarmsReach is on developing pre-market tools to help farmers more efficiently tackle everything from pricing, pack and food safety to planning and purchasing. To do so, FarmsReach plans to provide farmers everywhere with logistical software tools and also to establish a group buying program, which will function in much the same way as group purchasing organizations (GPO) do for hospitals by aggregating the purchase of supplies needed on an ongoing basis, to reduce farm production costs.

The company is also working to aggregate online business resources and programs for farmers in one location where they can find information about everything from business and crop planning to water management and more.

“If we can just rehabilitate the first mile in the supply chain, then other stakeholders that are working downstream can more easily take it from there,” Cheng said. “There is no one tool that is going to save the day. It is going to require a lot of people and multiple tools working together.”

FarmsReach’s pivot in strategy grew out of a realization that farmers need more robust tools to address the logistical issues of getting their products from the farm to the buyer, Cheng said.

“I think that many farms across the country would agree they could benefit from improvements in their business skills and operations. Many farmers will tell you they could use help streamlining their ops and marketing,” Cheng said. Continue Reading →

Food+Tech Connect ~ Melanie Cheng on Hacking the Food System: Think Systemically

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by Melanie Cheng

My focus has mainly been on solutions that try to pull some larger “levers of change” in the food system. The industry is in such a bad state right now, and it’s so incredibly complex with many, disparate players. Different types of technology can definitely help, but I think the million dollar question is where and how….and who can and should fund it.

Lately I’ve been talking with some funders and investment advisors who are researching the most promising tech investments. Short answer: it’s hard to know for sure, and, in my opinion, the state of the industry requires a lot more systemic thinking about solutions than just tech tools on their own.

Nonetheless below would be my quick picks. I’m sure there are other areas that could benefit greatly from technology, but these stand out to me as potentially having the largest impact:

  •  Precision agriculture: hardware and software to help farms increase their efficiencies. There is a lot of opportunity here. Precision ag is not only for agribusiness and not only for chemicals. There is a lot of research and innovation emerging to allow smaller farms to monitor, irrigate, and manage their land more efficiently and cheaply.
  •  Water metering, sensing and allocation tools: both hardware and software, and for both municipalities and farmers directly.
  •  Anything that helps farm operations “do more with less”: helping them increase their efficiencies with their notoriously limited resources. Many economic and distribution issues downstream in the supply chain are initially caused by the unviable operations on the farm.
  • [The elusive] Business-to-business regional supply chain transaction management and demand-supply alignment tools. Almost 99% of food sales are b-to-b. We need solutions to bring a lot more regional foods into these mainstream channels. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. (Check out the “Building Regional Produce Supply Chains” white paper we released with FarmsReach this summer.)
  • Aquaponics in certain situations, especially where there is not enough soil, water or other resources to grow food on the land.
  • Food stamp processing and innovation. Disclaimer: this isn’t my area of expertise at all(!), but I do know there is a need for 1) more markets and farmers markets to be able to process food stamps, and 2) it seems there must be an opportunity for innovation here.
  • Anything that could help disseminate business planning and financial management skills to the millions of family farms in the U.S. as well as to many of the thousands of non-profit organizations trying to help them.
  • Anything to entice more people to cook and actually help them do it.
  • Pipe dream: An online Cliff Notes version of the Farm Bill legislation, including searchable index, map of where the money flows now, and links to pertinent legislators and contact people associated with each bill.

Software Advice ~ Regional Food Hubs Face a Growing Need for Technology

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by Derek Singleton

The locavores are swarming and the popularity of local food is increasing across the nation. The number of farmer’s markets has more than tripled since the USDA started tracking these numbers in 1994 – increasing from 1,755 to 6,132. In 2010, direct sales from farmers to consumers increased to over $1.2 billion. And consumers aren’t the only ones with a rising demand for local food. More and more, organizations such as supermarkets, restaurants, schools and others are sourcing food locally.

To meet this burgeoning demand, local food distributors must scale up their operations from direct sales of small quantities to wholesale transactions. The problem, according to Michelle Miller of UW Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, is that “a lot of the mid-scale distributors, the logistics people who used to consolidate produce, have gone out of business.”

Local distribution networks, termed “food hubs,” are trying to fill that void. Food hubs are like farmers’ markets and distributors rolled into one. They surfaced to provide local farmers with the infrastructure to store, process, distribute, and market local food to consumers and institutions. The current demand for local food positions food hubs to expand their role in food distribution. However, they lack the necessary technology to manage operations on a larger scale.

Managing Through Low-Tech Means
Most food hubs are decidedly behind the curve technologically. Transactions are usually coordinated through a combination of phone, email, and fax. Everything from scheduling pickups and drop-offs to planning routes is handled in this manner. Managing transactions like this may be feasible for the moment, but it won’t work as food hubs expand. To effectively manage relationships with more customers and farmers, they’ll need more advanced technology. This will range from Internet databases for managing customers relationships to distribution software to manage logistics.

Luckily, technology solutions for food hubs are surfacing. Three promising ones are match-making services, Internet-based buying clubs, and distribution management systems. None of these technologies are exactly new – but their adaptation to food hubs is. Each product provides food hubs with a way to get their local produce out to the general market more efficiently.

Matchmaking Programs
Food hubs have helped farmers overcome the marketing obstacle by using online match-making programs that link producers to buyers. These match-making programs are interactive communities that function a lot like for local food. Local food lovers can log on and find their perfect peach in just a few clicks. There are two general types of match-making services: those that link buyers to local food, and those that add a distributor to the mix. Continue Reading →

Sustainable Food News ~ Food producers, big buyers launch regional food hub

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Organic Connections ~ Going Mainstream with Locally Grown Food

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by Organic Connections staff

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 2.55.34 PMMost of us know where to find locally and sustainably grown food: at the local farmers’ market or a health food store. But much of the time, we have to go out of our way to get it. Wouldn’t life be a lot simpler if such products were available right at chain supermarkets, restaurants and our kids’ schools? Meet a remarkable individual named Melanie Cheng, who is well on her way to realizing such a vision for us all.

Cheng’s career didn’t begin in the local, sustainable food movement, but in technology as a writer and editor for technology giant Cisco Systems. After 10 years, she decided she’d had enough of the corporate world and took straight after her passion: the environment. At first as a hobby, she created a website to help spread the word about organic agriculture and its many benefits.

“It’s interesting because even today a lot of people don’t know about all the benefits from organics and the harm from conventional farming,” Cheng told Organic Connections. “You name it, every environmental problem touches agriculture. And so that was really how I first got into agriculture: hobby. In the process, in the non-profit world you end up crossing a lot of other non-profits who are working in and around what you are doing. In the San Francisco Bay Area there are over 150 different organizations working with food and farming, so I quickly learned that the problem with agriculture went much deeper than just organic versus chemicals.”

Interestingly, Cheng discovered that a real problem in getting locally and sustainably grown food into the mainstream wasn’t so much environmental as organizational. At the time, there was no real way for buyers and sellers to connect and do business. The solution seemed simple: to evolve an online tool to connect up regional buyers and sellers so that business between them could take place. In 2009 she went live with a new website, FarmsReach, to accomplish just that.

After the site was up, though, Cheng discovered another issue. In fact, she discovered a whole other layer of issues. “When FarmsReach first launched, we got a lot of momentum with signing up farmers and buyers,” she related. “But we soon discovered that there are also logistical problems that mean more than just connecting buyer and supplier. How do you actually get it there? And how do small or medium farmers serve the larger supply channels? Ultimately if you are talking about making change, that means getting regional healthy food into the bigger volume channels, and a lot of small and medium farms don’t have the capacity or the business savvy to know how to market themselves to the bigger buyers, or logistically they just can’t. The bigger buyers, such as distributors or large institutions, need large volumes on a consistent basis. No single small farmer can supply that kind of consistency or volume.” Continue Reading →

Essinova ~ Agriculture 2.0 Conference Focusing on Sustainable Agriculture

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by Nick Sarkisian

Sponsored, hosted and organized by NewSeed Advisors and SPIN Farming, with additional co-host U.S. Venture Partners (USVP), the Agriculture 2.0 Silicon Valley 2010 Event, held March 24, 2010, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto, California, was the first West Coast conference of its kind, bringing together venture capital firms and early to late stage start-up companies with a focus on sustainable agriculture. This marked a notable convergence of cleantech, and even biotech, within the agricultural sector.

Janine Yorio, former Wall Street investment banker and founder of NewSeed Advisors, explained that the goal of NewSeed Advisors in organizing and sponsoring the Agriculture 2.0 Conference “is to attract institutional investors’ capital to the sustainable agriculture industry.” Ms. Yorio added that since the sustainable ag industry is a “relatively young industry, the companies tend to be pretty early stage.” As a result, NewSeed also assists these companies to “refine their messaging and structure their capital stack so that they are more attractive to investors.”

Need for Sustainable Solutions in Agriculture
In her opening address, Janine Yorio explained that the agricultural industry contributes more green house gases (GHG) in the U.S. than all of transportation combined, totaling up to “30% of U.S. GHG emissions”. With the U.S. itself contributing almost 25% of world GHG annually, reduction in U.S. GHG agricultural emissions is a key component to any GHG solution.

On that sustainability premise, the conference delivered a day of keynote, panel, and company presentations on sustainable “agtech” innovations and included a separate conference track on sustainable aquaculture sponsored and organized by Aquacopia Capital Management LLC, a venture capital firm specializing in aquaculture. Approximately 250 investor representatives, farmers, agtech professionals and academia were in attendance, including representatives from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Mindful Investors, Mohr Davidow, Open Prairie Investors, Nexus Venture Partners, Rockport Capital Partners, RSF Social Finance, and U.S. Venture Partners, to name a few.

Tom Tomich, U.C. Davis professor and Director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the university, provided one of the main keynote addresses, focusing on practices that promote a sustainable and secure food industry. Mr. Tomich highlighted that while agriculture represents only 4% of California’s economy, 20% and 40% of California land area and fresh water, respectively, are allocated to agriculture.

One of the featured panels was a Sustainable Ag panel focused on agribusiness models and practices that promote sustainable solutions and standards, and included Melanie Cheng, founder of FarmsReach, a San Francisco-based startup facilitating the development of a model for a regional food market infrastructure, Michael Dimock with the non-profit, Roots of Change, Scott Exo with Food Alliance, and Jeff Dlott with Sure Harvest.  Continue Reading → ~ Silicon Valley Places Bets on Sustainable Ag

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by Todd Woody

I attended an agriculture conference this week at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto.

There were no pickup trucks in the BMW-packed parking lot, and few farmers with dirt under their fingernails could be found milling about the sleek hotel lobby. But the place was swarming with venture capitalists from some of Silicon Valley’s marquee firms looking to grow profits with investments in sustainable agriculture.

Welcome to Agriculture 2.0.

That was the name of the conference and represents a growing effort to scale up sustainable agriculture from a hodge-podge of hippies and back-to-the-land types into a viable big business by bringing together venture capitalists and startups doing everything from rooftop farming to high-tech soil mapping to identifying the best areas for growing crops.

The big idea is that venture capitalists can help disrupt industrial agriculture much as they have the computer, entertainment and energy industries by investing in sustainable ag and using information technology to connect producers and consumers.

“We want to create an opportunity for a market, not a movement,” said Roxanne Christensen of SPIN Farming, which promotes the creation of urban microfarms.

The Palo Alto conference was organized by NewSeed Advisors, a New York firm that acts as a matchmaker between investors and sustainable ag startups.

Janine Yorio, a young former Wall Street investment banker, founded NewSeed and persuaded such high-profile venture firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Mohr Davidow Partners to spend Wednesday hearing pitches from a roster of sustainable ag entrepreneurs, who ranged from twenty-something Los Angeles farmers to silver-haired engineers developing environmentally friendly fertilizers.

So how to crack a century-old food production system that has become both increasingly centralized and globalized?

It won’t be easy, says Melanie Cheng, founder of FarmsReach, a San Francisco startup developing an online market to connect farmers to local buyers like restaurants. Continue Reading →