Going Mainstream with Locally Grown Food
27 Jun, 2010
Most 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 called OmOrganics.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.”
In order to meet the volume that the larger buyers require, Cheng soon realized that what was needed were intermediate agents known as “aggregators.” An aggregator is a non-profit or sometimes city-funded company that pools crops from smaller farms into quantities that buyers can then rely on. They had existed before Cheng began her work but were few and far between and in many cases hadn’t come up to the organizational level needed to truly deal in the mainstream.
“Over the past 100 years we have lost the infrastructure that facilitates regional food distribution,” said Cheng. “It’s not very glamorous or anything, but we’re talking about docks and warehouses and cooling facilities in rural areas so that all these small and medium farms can have a place to aggregate their product and pack it, creating more consolidated deliveries to urban areas.”
There was an evolution that needed to occur on the buyer side as well. “Historically, a lot of these farms form co-ops, and some of them are really great at it,” Cheng said. “But they haven‘t put that same energy into coordinating the buyers to commit to buying volume. Where regional food programs have been doing better, buyers are engaged and committed to these regional programs. They commit to purchasing a certain volume, and by doing so, the buyers have more of a hands-on approach in helping those suppliers better serve them.”
Another element Cheng has found workable, and one she is sharing, is a model called the business cluster. “A business cluster just means a group of non-profits and for-profits physically all working together to make it happen,” Cheng explained. “It’s obviously not efficient to have five organizations doing the work—but that’s how dysfunctional it’s been for the past several decades. So, within a cluster, maybe one group is doing farm outreach and advocacy, one group is doing consumer/buyer advocacy, then perhaps there is a connectional distributor partner who is helping with the hard labor and logistics of delivery, and maybe another group that sets up the aggregation point in the rural area. Each region is slightly different; that’s the characteristic of having a lot of distinct groups and the community all chipping in—a division of labor to make it happen.”
Cheng is getting to be a real expert on the subject, as not long ago she became the recipient of a grant from the USDA/CDFA for the purpose of researching elements that have worked in regional food systems. She is in the process of locating aggregators, buyers and food systems and analyzing their workability. She is then sharing the research to help others get up and running. The idea is to finish the research project, working with a core group of aggregators and buyers, then retool FarmsReach to meet the new standards and relaunch broadly.
It hasn’t been an easy road, but Cheng has her goal firmly in mind. “In the end, what we hope to have is a system that facilitates regional systems to operate efficiently and viably,” she concluded. “That will be accomplished by helping existing aggregators to become streamlined and run more professionally. It will also be accomplished by assisting areas where there isn’t an aggregation program set up, and helping them to get established using our system as well. The goal is to become a utility for aggregators of all types and buyers of all types and for the wholesale channel.”
With people like Melanie Cheng bringing practical organization to the local, sustainable movement, having real food on our tables every day isn’t just a dream; it’s really going to happen—and not so far into the future.
To find out more about FarmsReach, visit their website at www.farmsreach.com.