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 because they slept in” 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.
“Today, it may be a website,” she says, “but in a few short years, mobile devices will mean quick order placement, confirmation and tracking that simply wasn’t possible until now.”
Melanie’s patience begins to pay off as more chefs appear at the party. One tells Cheng he has a 30-top to prep for that night and can’t stay long.
Amelia Petrovic, a Farmsreach employee in charge of chef outreach appears carrying a box of summer stone fruit. She’s spent her morning picking up orders for chefs who don’t have time to stop at the market and gathering them at a nearby curb so they can pull in and grab their produce. Petrovic says she’s heard from more and more chefs who don’t have time to spend at the market.
Since I released my system in January 2007, nearly 100 communities across the US & Canada have set up virtual markets, farmstands, and buying clubs that bring the efficiencies enjoyed by the giant internet retailers such as Amazon.com down to the small farmers who are trying to feed their neighbors.