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 →

Organic NationTV ~ FarmsReach.com 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 FarmsReach.com, 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. Farmsreach.com 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!

-Dorothee

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 →