Category Archives: FarmsReach in the News

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 calledOmOrganics.org 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 →

Grist.org ~ 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 →

Fast Company ~ Eat-Onomics: The 10 Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food

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by Stephanie Schomer

The way America eats has to change, that’s no secret. Thanks to the efforts of these ten trailblazers, that change might be closer than we think.

Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm

Barber is the brains behind the “Know thy Farmer” philosophy embraced at Blue Hill Farm. He was recently honored at the USA Network’s Character Approved Awards for his achievements in “green” food cultivation and preparation. A passionate advocate for regional farm networks, Barber continues to practice what he preaches at his family owned farms, as well as with the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Deborah Kane, Vice President of Food and Farms at Ecotrust

Last month, Ecotrust began allowing Northwest food producers and buyers to utilize FoodHub, an online resource aimed to simplify their connections with each other and increase food trade in the Pacific Northwest. Kane continues to expound Ecotrust’s mission to inspire fresh thinking that promotes social equity, economic opportunity and environmental well-being.

Mike Yohay, CEO of Cityscape Farms

Yohay’s Cityscape Farms continues to work to produce great-tasting fresh food for local buyers with its hydroponic greenhouses. “Hydroponic farming is incredibly innovative and resource economical compared to conventional farming. It’s well-suited for cities because you can do it anywhere,” says Yohay.

Gary Hirshberg, CEO, Stonyfield Farm

In the past 26 years, Hirshberg has taken his organic yogurt company and turned it into an organic yogurt empire worth $340 million. Stonyfield Farm doesn’t just deliver high-quality food to consumers, but pays farmers 60-100% more than conventional farmers, to ensure the use of sustainable farming practices. What does he ask of his customers? “When you shop, you’re really voting for the kind of world you want. It is power,” he says. “We should use that power for good.”

Roger Doiron, founder, Kitchen Gardeners International

Doiron can proudly take credit for bringing a garden to the lawn of the White House with Eat the View, a campaign that rallied Americans’ desire to see a healthier First Family. “I knew this garden had been proposed in the past, and it had its champions–Alice Waters, Michael Pollan,” he says. “I wasn’t a rock star like them, but thought I could play the role of a roadie, making sure the mics are on and the amps are cranked up to make sure other people’s voices were heard.”

Jamie Oliver, chef

The Naked Chef is on a mission to bring healthy food to every child in America. His campaign, Jamie’s Food Revolution, aims to replace junk food and processed snacks with fresh and nutritious meals, in school and at home. ABC will air a six-part series tracking the campaign as Oliver heads to Huntington, West Virginia, which has been called the unhealthiest city in America. If Oliver can make Huntington healthy, he might be able to make America healthy.

Melanie Cheng, founder, FarmsReach

San Francisco-based FarmsReach pairs farmers up with buyers for sustainable local food systems, with plans to be nationwide by 2011. “If you look at statistics, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture are awesome, growing distribution methods, but they still make up less than 1% of food volume sold in the country,” she says. “That’s why we’re working with the wholesale channel, for distributors and bigger institutions.”

Michael Pollan, author, Food Rules

Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules, offers memorable tips on making wise eating choices. In his new book, Pollan (who has been described as the nation’s most trusted resource for food-related issues) shows Americans that “eating doesn’t have to be so complicated.”

Dickson Despommier, Vertical Farms Project

The Vertical Farms Project is the brainchild of Despommier, a professor at Columbia, and his students. Envisioning a world of sustainable farms housed in urban skyscrapers, the project proposes paying traditional farmers to simply plant trees on their land, in an attempt to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Crazy? Maybe. But it’s inspiring more thought, more solutions.

Robert Kenner, director, Food Inc.

Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. did its fair share of grossing viewers out by exposing the heinous slaughter practices (and eating habits) found across our country. More importantly, the film, which showcased leaders like Hirshberg, showed that it is possible to eat healthy and enjoy it.

Civil Eats ~ Produce to the People: Collaboration for Food Access

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by Twilight Greenaway

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When it comes to local food, supply and demand aren’t always in sync. Many Bay Area shoppers still lack convenient access to affordable local food while many farmers struggle to expand their markets, even as awareness of the value of their products continues to grow. And while traditional farmers markets and CSAs are crucial to the success of many small farms, they ultimately account for a relatively small percentage of the total food that people buy.

How then can communities provide access to more fresh, healthy local food that is sustainably produced? How do we to create more demand (and a fair market) for farmers, while ensuring food security for people otherwise entirely dependent on the industrial food system? These were a few of the critical questions on the table at Produce for the People: New Ideas for Local Distribution, a panel co-hosted last week by CUESA and Kitchen Table Talks.

More people than expected turned out for this evening conversation and with a 138-person limit to the Port Commission Hearing Room at the Ferry Plaza Building in San Francisco, many people stood in the doorways to hear what was being said. Clearly, the conversation is an important one, worthy of further talks; and this one addressed the tip of the iceberg, addressing topics such as the history of this essential part of the food system, projects in the works, and suggestions for change.

The evening’s moderator, Roots of Change’s Michael Dimock, began with a definition of the challenge at hand. “The [food] system is incredibly concentrated,” he said. “That concentration has destroyed the system’s diversity and resilience.” Dimock briefly explained how problems arise with a concentration of production facilities, the increasing size of the average farm, and the concentration of distribution, retail outlets, and capital. One of the many consequences, he added, is a startling number of food deserts – or vast, under-resourced urban and rural areas where there is little or no fresh food available and the shocking reality that the people who grow our local food can rarely afford to buy it. Continue Reading →

Fast Company ~ Eat-Onomics with Melanie Cheng, Founder of FarmsReach

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by Anne C. Lee

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San Francisco-based FarmsReach pairs farmers up with buyers for sustainable local food systems, helping buyers source produce locally and support healthy farms. Founded in 2007, the online marketplace opened its public beta version in February 2009. It currently serves the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other regions, but aims to be nationwide by the end of this year.

Fast Company: What’s your definition of sustainable food?

Melanie Cheng: We all have the idealistic wonderful definition where everything is ecologically sustainable. It’s beyond organic: Everyone is paid a fair wage and people of all income levels are eating fresh, healthy local foods. That’s the big dream for all of us, but the reality is that everyone–from farmers to distributors to buyers–is in different stages of getting there. So it’s more a matter of journey and where you are along that path. There are so many variables for a sustainable food system. Everyone is good as long as you’re on the road somewhere. So for some farmers who have been using chemicals for 50 years, it might just be using less, and it’s okay, because at least they’re down that path. Whereas a farm that has been farming organically for 45 years may want to go further and think about water, habitation, etc. They’re all good as long as the intention is on the bigger dreamland goal.

FC: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing sustainable food right now?

MC: The regional food system is an essential component of sustainability, and I think the biggest problem today is just aligning supply and demand. The food system for the past 80 to 100 years has been a global food system, so lot of the infrastructure from when we used to feed ourselves from our own areas is gone, like the coordination as far as marketplace, tracking the growing number of smaller farmers and what each has available, and connecting them to buyers in their own area. Continue Reading →

The Produce News ~ FarmsReach Looking to Bring Growers & Buyers Together

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by The Produce News Staff

Numerous new projects are currently underway to help small and mid-sized farmers get their fruits and vegetables directly into the hands of foodservice operators, farmers markets and retailers.

The projects also include initiatives that help to educate consumers on the source of their food via avenues that enable them to learn about the farmers — and in some cases, even interact with them. Most projects are using technology to streamline the process, and growers everywhere are taking advantage of the opportunities.

One such project is being run by FarmsReach, a San Francisco-based company that is using technology to bring farmers and buyers together. The company was founded in 2007, and although it currently focuses on the San Francisco area, it plans to roll out the program to other areas in the country in 2010.

Tom Grace, vice president of programs for FarmsReach, explained that the program is an on-line marketplace for farmers, retailers and foodservice operators that provides a venue for them to connect. It was developed in response to the locally grown demand.

“The typical farmer that registers with FarmsReach has enough production to serve numerous areas and venues,” said Mr. Grace. “It was officially launched on the web (www.farmsreach.com) last spring, and it is showing good involvement and success.”

Mr. Grace thinks of Farms_Reach as an eBay for buyers and sellers of locally grown produce. For example, a chef at a San Francisco restaurant might log on to the site at the close of his shift to place his produce orders for the next couple of days. He views what growers have available and places his orders.

Using FarmsReach is a simple process. Producers create their stall where they list food, pricing, packaging and other relevant information. They update their stall continually to ensure that the items they have on hand are listed and which days they can deliver to specific locations. Once everything is ready, the producer opens his stall for business, and the produce is available immediately for buyers to search.

A buyer simply types in the name of the item he or she is seeking, and the web site presents a list of results. Buyers can refine a search to specific producers, markets or geographical ranges. When a buyer finds what he or she wants, the item is added to the cart. The buyer can purchase the same item from multiple vendors if needed. Continue Reading →

NPR ~ Site Helps Chefs Find Farmers, And Fresh Produce

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by Beth Hoffman

With the popularity of locally grown vegetables soaring, a new Web site hopes to make it easier for chefs to find farmers in their area — and have produce delivered to their restaurants. The idea behind FarmsReach.com is to provide one-stop-shopping for fresh produce from many farms at once.

FarmsReach launched in San Francisco’s Bay Area last spring; its owners plan to expand to seven other regions around the country.

On the site, a restaurant buyer clicks on the products they want — sending an e-mail to the farmer, detailing the order and where to drop the produce. The direct relationship helps get at distribution problems that plague growers who need a bigger outlet than their local weekly farmers markets.

It’s the height of harvest season in California, and the tomatoes are perfectly red and juicy. Many of us buy heirloom varieties at the farmers market, getting local produce one tomato at a time. But for restaurants and schools, the process is not quite so easy.

Nettie’s Crab Shack, a bright and homey place on San Francisco’s high-end Union Street, specializes in cooking with fresh local fish and produce.

On a recent visit, Nettie’s was serving a prawn salad with heirloom tomatoes from Capay Farms — organic Sun Gold tomatoes picked by hand just a short time ago in the Capay Valley in Northern California.

“The tomatoes really help brighten up the whole dish. They have a burst of sweetness and tartness,” said Nettie’s chef Brian Leitner. He used to spend a lot of time calling farms to get this kind of produce. Or he would shop booth by booth at the farmers market. But not anymore.

Farm Fresh promo

Logging onto the FarmsReach site, Leitner sees a long list of produce from farms all around the Bay Area — including Capay Organics, a farm Leitner found on the site. Continue Reading →

Civil Eats ~ If You Build A New Food System Tool, Will They Use It

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by Twilight Greenaway

Melanie Cheng is waiting patiently. It’s 2pm on a Saturday and the launch party she’s hosting for her new web platform, FarmsReach, on the patio at Americano Restaurant and Bar in downtown San Francisco is just getting going. Chef Paul Arenstam is grilling sliders, and a long table displays a bounty of local vegetables. This could be any old recession-friendly website launch, but today’s guests are farmers and chefs, and the product – a set of online tools to connect local food producers to buyers — is intended to do more than make a quick profit.

“A lot of the chefs have called me to tell me they’re running late” Cheng says. Meanwhile, the farmers in attendance are just knocking off after long days of selling at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market across the street, days that started as early 4 am for some. This profound difference in schedules might be one reason why, even in a city known for cultivation strong ties between restaurants and local farms, Cheng believes there’s a role for technology that can strengthen those ties and ensure local food always a solid market.

FarmsReach buyers place orders online and pick them at a local farmers’ market or have them delivered to their door. The idea, says Cheng, who has been working on ways to improve the food system with technology for years and founded a nonprofit called Om Organics in 2002, is to make the whole process more predictable, and much easier to track. Before FarmsReach, she adds, “producers didn’t know what to bring to market, or whether they’d wind up driving it home. And if they did deliveries, they lacked a good way to share their availability, delivery schedules and routes with buyers. New buyers didn’t have an easy way of finding producers either. Now, a restaurant can type in “Kale” and see a range of producers, deliveries, and pickups.”

Since the FarmsReach soft-launch in February, Cheng says she has gotten around 100 restaurants and around 25 producers involved. The initial core audience is made up of Bay Area chefs, and once this group of beta testers help shape the software, the goal is to engage a whole range of institutional buyers from places like schools and hospitals, as well to expand to other geographical areas (Austin, LA, New York, DC, and parts of Canada have already expressed interest).

Built by a team of Silicon Valley developers, the software was created with scalability in mind, and Cheng believes it has the potential to outpace similar projects – most of which have been initiated by nonprofits — over time. She also envisions it allowing for an increased mobility on both sides of the marketplace. Continue Reading →