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 ( 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 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 →

Organic NationTV ~ Connects Farmers With Buyers

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by Dorothee Royal-Hedinger

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Today I had the pleasure of talking with Melanie Cheng, the founder of, a web platform that works to connect food producers with distributors, restaurants and new markets.

While working in the San Francisco sustainable food sector with Om Organics, Melanie noticed that supply and demand in her local food chain were not aligned, making the whole system unstable and inefficient at times. With Farmsreach she aims to help educate farmers both about business and technology so that they ultimately have more time to farm. (What a concept!)

Melanie mentions that it’s great to have more CSAs and farmers markets in an area but that distribution model only makes up a fraction of one percent of the market. She emphasizes that true change will come by getting sustainable food into conventional supply chains, at least in the short term. aims to help connect mid-size farmers with distributors, help small farmers reach out to new markets and help buyers buy more volume from growers.

The Farmsreach model will make prices, crop availability and demand more transparent for all involved. This type of standardization and streamlining has been done by many other industries (think: easy access to airplane ticket prices with Expedia and Travelocity) but it hasn’t been tried in the sustainable food sector until now. (Check out the recent WIRED article featuring Farmsreach that talks about the convergence of technology with sustainable food: Food Web, Meet Interweb: The Networked Future of Farms.)

At the moment, Farmsreach is working with real farmers and buyers to test and refine the web platform in the San Francisco area. Right now there are 75 San Francisco restaurants and farms participating, but eventually Melanie hopes to mobilize farmers and buyers across the country.

Don’t expect this to launch immediately though: Melanie is considerate about working with farmers at their own pace and invested in making sure the site addresses their needs. Ultimately, she says, “you have to have the trust of farmers.” Amen to that!


Wired ~ Food Web, Meet Interweb: The Networked Future of Farms

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by Alexis Madrigal

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Silicon Valley thinks the internet can transform anything from car sales to anonymous sex, but the way Americans grow and buy food is rooted in ancient, offline systems.

Now, a Bay Area startup has launched a service to make it easier and cheaper for restaurants to buy food from small, local farms. With a suite of mobile apps for use in restaurants and on farms, FarmsReach wants to create an online food marketplace that would directly connect farms with restaurants.

“The food supply industry is ripe for ‘disintermediation’ because of the internet,” said Alistair Croll, a startup consultant working with FarmsReach. In other words, middlemen beware: Food could undergo a transition like the one that swept through classified ads, air travel and dozens of other industries.

If that happens, it could begin to transform the food system, and that would be welcome news for food activists. The problems of the food system have been well-chronicled over the last few years: environmental degradation, occasional food-borne disease outbreaks and millions of overweight Americans.

While these issues are receiving attention from many organizations, both inside and outside of the agricultural sector, information flow could be the hidden lever inside the food system. The current system does a remarkably good job of concealing how food is grown and by whom. Lettuce planted halfway around the world looks pretty much like lettuce grown around the corner. Farmers have a hard time showing the value they add and being recognized for innovative practices.

The current distribution of edibles works the way it does, though, because it’s brutally effective at reliably delivering low-cost food all over the country. Sysco, the dominant $13 billion American food distributor, works and restaurants know that.

“The big problem in small agriculture is supply chain resiliency,” Croll said. “Chefs order from Sysco because they know, no matter what, they’ll get their orders or there is an account rep they can strangle.” Continue Reading →

GigaOm ~ Can Putting Farmers Online Make Food Biz More Sustainable?

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March 27, 2009

by Jennifer Kho

The idea of buying food from a local farm might seem like the very opposite of high tech. But FarmsReach, a California startup that won the audience choice award at our Green:Net conference this week, hopes to make it easier to buy directly from farms by putting produce online.

The company has developed a web marketplace to make it easier for buyers — such as restaurants, hospitals and schools — to order produce from nearby farmers, and for farmers to manage their sales and deliveries. Farmers list the produce they have for sale on the site, and buyers can search for the fruits and vegetables they want and place orders, either picking them up at nearby farmer’s markets or having them delivered.

Founded in 2007, FarmsReach officially launched its beta program at Green:Net on Tuesday, although it had a “soft launch” two weeks ago. Some 60 restaurants have already signed up to use the site, including Americano Restaurant & BarGlobe Restaurant and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco. The company also lists 11 farms on its site, including Capay Organic FarmHeirloom Organics and Dirty Girl Produce. On the beta site Wednesday night, searches turned up anywhere from 16 to 0 results.

FarmsReach is tackling an industry under immense financial pressure. Most farmers are in financial trouble, with the average farmer making only 20 cents for every dollar you spend on food and with 60 percent taking second jobs, CEO Lana Holmes said during her presentation Tuesday. “We’re putting a livable wage into pockets of farmers and hopefully paving the way for sustainable food in America,” she said.

By making it easier to buy, FarmsReach hopes to entice more buyers to patronize local farms, a task that today often involves hours of calling and faxing. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” Holmes said. The company thinks facilitating relationships between farmers and buyers will help boost demand for local produce and lower the amount of energy used in the supply chain.

While the beta is free, the company later plans to make money by charging farmers $10 per month for its services plus commission on sales over $200. FarmsReach plans to use data from the site to provide farmers with information about buyer demand, Holmes said.

But the company faces some challenges. For one thing, most farmers aren’t technology-savvy and also tend to be too busy with actual farming to spend much time managing the business, Holmes said. Right now, FarmsReach is inputting much of the farms’ produce on the site, she said. “Obviously, we’ll have to hand that off.” Continue Reading →

Ode Magazine ~ Interview with Melanie Cheng, Founder of FarmsReach

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March 2009


Earth2Tech ~ Our 10 Green:Net Startups Using Infotech to Fight Climate Change

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by Katie Fehrenbacher

We’ve been poring over business plans and PowerPoint presentations for the past few weeks, searching for innovative young companies that are leveraging Internet and computing technologies to fight climate change. Given the overwhelming response, our mission has been to whittle down the many good candidates to the 10 early-stage startups who will present their ideas at our Green:Net conference in San Francisco in March. Drum roll, please! We’ve made our selections and, quite frankly, they rock.

You’ve probably never heard of our 10 selected startups, because most haven’t launched or raised funding yet. But take it from us, you’re probably going to hear a lot more about them — they’re innovators who are developing software, wireless networks, consumer electronics, and web tools to reduce energy consumption or boost clean power:

1). Visible Energy: There are a couple companies called Visible Energy out there, most of them focused on representing energy consumption data. But our selection has a big picture of a UFO-looking gadget on its site, has an iPhone app, and is still in stealth mode. We won’t say much more than that, but their demo at the launchpad will identify the mysterious energy object. We got a sneak peak, and we think you’ll be impressed.

2). Packet Power: The company uses “smart power cables” that monitor power consumption and temperature to help IT organizations see the energy consumption of their hardware on a small scale. PacketPower is producing its cable-based tech now and will be at commercial scale in the summer.

3). FarmsReach: FarmsReach is a web-based tool that helps local food sellers and farmers streamline their logistics and sales. With easier online management, more organizations and institutions can buy locally-grown food and more local farmers can find a marketplace online. That all results in lowered energy consumption for the creation and transportation of food.

4). dot UI: dot UI is a stealthy startup working on open-source middleware called OpenURC that can bring networked HVAC controls, light switches, consumer electronics and web services together in a single user interface. The tool can help utilities deliver demand response tools and enable residents to control their appliances.

5). GreenWizard: The company’s web-based software creates a marketplace for the analysis and purchase of green building materials. Architects, engineers and contractors can use it to source green building products and suppliers.

6). Adaptive Meter: Adaptive Meter is a group of developers that are using gaming and entertainment to take energy data and make it more effective in changing consumption behavior. Their product, Lost Joules, is a competitive stock-market style game that enables users to place bets on energy consumption data using virtual currency. The company hopes to build its game using Google’s PowerMeter API once it becomes available. Continue Reading →