It All Started with a Trip to 21 Acres
I recently learned about the ‘Food Hub’ concept at 21 Acres in Woodinville, WA which is a working non-profit farm designed to cultivate and teach about sustainable farming practices. I visited the farm in late October 2013 and was impressed by the overall design, mission and vision of the enterprise. During that day, I walked all twenty one of the acres with Jane McClure – their Event Director and learned about how the farm was developed out of a plot of land that the city would have otherwise used to develop commercial and residential property.
When I visited their store I found that all of the products on hand were from local Washington farmers and that part of their mission was to serve as a ‘Food Hub’ for small farmers who were otherwise hamstrung in their efforts to reach a larger consumer population due to resources, distance, marketing reach or simply time. A Food Hub is simply a centralized drop off point for farmers to bring their goods for distribution to consumers. 21 Acres has started this concept in the Puget Sound region and they are others such as the NW Food Hub and the Northsound Food Hub run by Susan and Harley Soltes of Bow Hill Blueberry Farm in collaboration with 21 Acres. More can be learned about the concept in this excellent article by Claire Thompson on Grist.org.
The Energy Behind Farmstr
Fast forward to a very un-Seattle day – a brisk, clear and sunny late-November morning in the Fremont neighborhood. I’m at Milstead Coffee Co. waiting to meet Janelle Maiocco, CEO of Farmstr.com which is a virtual ‘food hub’ focused on bringing small local farmers together with consumers who want their products. After a last minute calendar mix up I reach Janelle via email and she agrees to drop everything to meet me.
A few minutes later, Janelle arrives in her burgundy 1952 Dodge pickup – complete with Farmstr logo emblazoned on the sides. Her infectious smile, enthusiasm and personable nature shine through immediately and I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend after only knowing her for a few short minutes. You can also see the communicator and marketer in Janelle as she is quick to confirm her understanding of what you are saying and to reaffirm that my questions were good ones.
Since it’s so beautiful out, we decide to take a walk around the neighborhood and talk about the Farmstr concept while enjoying our coffee. I asked Janelle about her background and what got her interested in the local food movement. After years of culinary school and marketing in the food industry, she found herself living in Florence, Italy and enjoyed the daily ritual of visiting specialty food stores for each genre of items she needed. Anyone that has lived abroad understands the very pastime of visiting the local butcher for meat, the baker for bread, the cheese monger for cheese, and so on. It’s a foreign concept to most living in the States as we drive to mega markets to ‘one stop shop’ in the interest of saving time. Very few know the deeply rooted pleasure of knowing where their food comes from – though this sentiment is growing daily.
A taste of the Florentine/Mediterranean lifestyle gave Janelle the inspiration she needed to create Farmstr.com which effectively connects small farmers to customers wanting fresh, local produce, meat, eggs, dairy and more. She saw a market need to better connect small, local farmers with their customers and to help facilitate marketing and sales of their products. In early 2013, Janelle bootstrapped the Farmstr.com enterprise with her co-founder and Chief Product Officer Chad Grey and 3 employees. Nearly 6 months later the site launched and farmers were magically connected with customers they could not have easily reached in the past.
Farmstr – The Concept
The concept is simple but powerful – small farmer needs help reaching customers. Farmstr operates as a connector to create a virtual food hub for distribution of farm products to customers via a combination of its website and small business owners offering up space to drop off/pick up goods (aka ‘Farmstr Partners’). The company operates on a low-overhead, low margin model ensuring farmers get a good price for their product while consumers pay a fair price which is often better than what they’d get through a Whole Foods or PCC. At its core – Farmstr is about providing quality, local food at great, near wholesale prices while connecting farmers with customers. Farmstr is all about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food mantra.
The simplicity of the concept is virtually translated into the streamlined design of Farmstr.com. There’s no annoying b.s. like pop-ups, annoying ads or superfluous content. When you arrive at the site you immediately know what you are there for and what is available. Simple graphics in grid form show what is on offer, how many are available, for how much and when/where they can be picked up. Clicking on an item gives you concise details about the product while clicking on the Farmer links give you a brief overview of who your farmer is and where they are from. Easy-peasy.
Janelle also mentioned that she plans to implement additional useful content about product facts, recipes and food storage but will avoid the annoying world of pop-ups and ad overkill. In a world of websites that force you to click on ads and pop ups like you are playing a video game trying to kill them off – Farmstr.com is a breath of fresh air.
Working with Farmers
One of Farmstr’s primary goals is to enable Farmers to reach untapped markets and a customer base that is not currently within reach. It wants to ensure they are treated well and respected – not like commodity growers of monocultures or ‘the little guys’ not worth the time of the big supermarkets. In essence, Farmstr is there to make it as easy as possible for them to do business without high overhead costs and even lower margins in an already low margin business.
The Distribution Channel
Farmstr’s distribution is beneficial in multiple ways. It typically leverages local businesses as drop off sites which encourages customers to also shop at said businesses. Overhead is reduced as no storefront is required. When I picked up my first order I did so at the awesome Portage Bay Grange run by Kevin and Kirsten Scott-Vandenberge in the University District in Seattle. I not only got a great deal on 40 pounds of organic squash but I was also able to pick up some supplies for my backyard chickens. I love the store – every time I go in I find a new hobby I didn’t know I wanted before I walked into the store. Everyone wins.
In addition, some farmers use existing farmers markets as drop off sites – which is convenient and cuts down on transportation costs if they already have stall at the market. Farmers get to meet their customers and vice versa. A relationship is formed. Knowledge is gained. Brand loyalty is developed. Food origin is now known.
A lot of this is about enabling customers to get new products that they don’t know how to access today. Believe it or not, there is a vast array of farm products that see only a tiny percentage of the consumer base. I mean, why do I need to buy $12/bottle Mexican honey from Whole Foods when I can get a local product for much less right in my own backyard? I want to meet the person that talks to the chickens that lay the eggs I eat and feed my children. I want to know who is growing my beets and in what. And I want to let them know I support and appreciate them in kind.
Products Now and In the Future
Currently, Farmstr.com provides access to several items including seasonal produce, local dairy from The Art of Milk, and several meat options including sustainably raised goat, lamb, pork and grass fed beef. The opportunity to add more is there and it’s only a matter of time before the selection grows exponentially. When I asked Janelle what is currently missing or needed in the local food market she was quick to respond, “Locally raised Turkeys. We can’t get enough of them and there’s a huge demand.” She quickly added, “Pastured poultry and year-round salad greens would be welcome additions as well.” We also discussed the trend of co-operative commercial kitchens which will enable more food entrepreneurs to bring their value add products to market without making the investment in their own space/equipment. This is yet another way to support small, sustainable farmers and can only bring more good, locally sourced prepared products to market as well as provide many with additional income.
The opportunity is clearly there if Farmstr wants to take its show on the road. Every major metropolitan market has the same dilemma and value proposition – smaller, local farmers who need a medium to bring product to market and customers who want fresh, locally grown, sustainable food from farmers they know (supply/demand). If you need proof go to your local farmers market on any weekend in Ballard or the University District in Seattle. They are packed.
Seattle and Western Washington is Farmstr’s trial market with additional drop off/pick up locations in Bellingham and Redmond with more to come. The desire is there to expand into other markets across the US in the near future. Through her work as a premier food blogger over the past 8+ years, Janelle has a broad network of bloggers, food producers and farmers in her cachet. They will be key to any expansion plans if Farmstr and the virtual food hub concept is to grow. I, for one, will be telling all of my friends and family about it. I hope you do too.