What is Airbnb farming and could it improve the unnecessary food supply chain?

In 2011, in the midst of the Spanish economic crisis, brothers Gabriel and Gonzalo Úrculo quit their jobs to return to the beautiful Valencia orange grove where they had grown up to relaunch the family fruit business.

But they quickly ran into problems. The low prices paid by supermarkets and other middlemen made it almost impossible to earn a living. On top of that, part of the harvest was always wasted because they couldn’t sell it.

So, in an attempt to disrupt what they saw as an inefficient and opaque food supply chain, they came up with the idea of ​​cutting out middlemen and reaping rewards “on demand” for individual customers.

The brothers put their trees up for “adoption,” allowing people to pay for the care of each tree in exchange for the harvest when it was ready. Customers knew they were getting good fruit from a small farm using sustainable methods. Farmers got a guaranteed price for a certain quantity of fruit before the season, which allows them to better plan and reduce waste.

In 2017, they took the idea outside of their own orange grove and launched CrowdFarming.com – a platform that works a bit like Airbnb for agriculture. Customers can log in, learn more about a farm, who runs it and the methods they use. They can then adopt a plant or part of the field to receive the harvest – whether it is avocados from Spain, potatoes from Germany, or wine from France. If there are leftovers, customers can also order boxes of surplus food.

The platform was slowly gaining popularity, but last year’s lockdowns gave it a huge boost. More and more people were turning to online grocery shopping or looking for new ways to ensure they had access to fresh food. Sales have tripled and the number of farmers joining the program has also doubled. CrowdFarming says it now serves 200,000 homes across Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, France and the Nordic countries.

“Europeans have been demanding more organic and sustainable products for years, and the pandemic has only accelerated this change in consumer behavior,” explains co-founder Gonzalo Úrculo.

As for farmers, “many have seen their traditional sales channels collapse due to the coronavirus crisis.”

How is it shortening food supply chains?

CrowdFarming is ambitious. In his marketing materials, he insists that he “is not trying to digitize the traditional food supply chain. We are not an online supermarket. We are building technology for a new food supply chain that enables new experiences for consumers, stable incomes for farmers and that redesigns the entire process of cultivation, harvesting and logistics.

It is one of many initiatives that have emerged in recent years to ‘shorten’ the food supply chain, giving customers more transparency about where their food comes from and giving farmers a break from the pressures of food. supplying supermarkets.

Emerging models include community supported agriculture (CSA), where residents share the risks and rewards of the harvest with a local farmer through arrangements such as co-ownership or investment in a farm; and online farmers’ markets. This usually involves a distributor working with local farms to bundle items for the consumer.

CrowdFarming involves elements of both. “I think these hybrid models are getting more and more popular,” says Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Food tank, a think tank focused on repairing the food system, “whether it’s preventing food waste or supporting regional food systems.”

“These types of innovations were in development before the pandemic, but the need for farmers and food businesses to pivot is increasing their spread.”

Ordering wholesale requires a “change of mind”

Operating across Europe, CrowdFarming offers a much larger network than most online farmers’ markets or CSA models. Customers also don’t have to rely on the options available in their area. But there is no middleman to “bundle” items – the central goal of reducing inefficiencies is for customers to buy directly from farmers. This usually means buying in bulk.

“It requires a change in mindset on the part of the consumer,” says Abigail, 38, who works in tech in the UK and used CrowdFarming to adopt a sheep (receiving the cheese from her milk in return), an orange tree and a walnut tree.

“It was intimidating at first… but it made me think and research the ways people traditionally handle large crops,” she says. While things like cheese and nuts can last a long time, she has had to learn how to dry, marinate, and candy citrus fruits to retain parts of her orders – skills she thinks others may have learned during the process as well. locking.

For Abigail, the past year increased the appeal of options like Crowd Farming, as access to fresh food didn’t seem so reliable. “I think we understand how much we rely on, for example, continental Europe for our fresh fruit, and people want to explore ways to take responsibility for their own food,” she says.

Relatively new to the idea, Karin Gstöttmayr, 44, who lives with her family in Switzerland, recently placed her first order for a 4kg box of avocados. They came with storage instructions to help the fruit ripen gradually.

“It worked perfectly,” she says. “We were able to extend consumption to almost three weeks. They were spotless and delicious. Some customers have also shared large deliveries with friends and neighbors.

Karin attributes the growing popularity of the platform to a growing desire to make consumption “more aware, to fight climate change and to feel independent from the ‘big evil corporations’.” CrowdFarming has a “very personal setup” that fits that perfectly, she says.

What are the environmental benefits?

These social and environmental benefits are at the heart of what CrowdFarming claims to do. All the farms it lists are organic and must meet certain sustainability requirements in terms of production methods, packaging and working conditions.

If the pandemic permits, adopters can even visit farms to check it out for themselves. The idea is that transparency encourages sustainable practices and that farmers can invest more in it because they receive a higher price for their products.

Marco Jostmeier, a potato producer in Germany who sells through CrowdFarming, notes that this level of transparency and personalization comes with “a tremendous amount of extra work” for the farmer. But for his team, being able to set their own price for their product and have a more personal relationship with customers means “we’re happy to do that.”

“We believe that the bond between producer and consumer will grow stronger in the future and that more and more consumers want to know where their food comes from,” says Jostmeier. “CrowdFarming is not the only way but … it’s a good way.”

The online platform is much less local than many sustainable food models. Still, rculo argues that it is much more environmentally friendly for European customers to buy avocados or mangoes in Spain than in South America or Asia, from where these products would typically be shipped.

“Transport represents 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions in EU food chains, ”he says. “The most important factor is what we grow and how we do it.

“A short, fast and efficient supply chain reduces energy consumption and therefore CO2 emissions.

While the social and environmental impacts can be hard to spot, Karin and Abigail hope to make positive change, even in small ways.

“Eating oranges thousands of miles from their origin will always have a cost … but what I’ve read and experienced is enough to suggest that I’m making sufficiently reasonable choices,” says Abigail.

Karine agrees. The social and environmental benefit “is important to me,” she says. “I hope I’m supporting a good cause here by enjoying guacamole.”

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