In 2011, amid Spain’s economic crisis, brothers Gabriel and Gonzalo Úrculo quit their jobs to return to the beautiful orange grove in Valencia where they had grown up to revive the family fruit business.
But they soon encountered problems. The low prices paid by supermarkets and other intermediaries made it almost impossible to make a living. On top of that, part of the harvest would always go to waste because they couldn’t sell it.
So in a bid to disrupt what they saw as an inefficient and opaque food supply chain, they came up with an idea to cut out the middleman and harvest fruit “on demand” for individual customers.
The brothers put their trees up for “adoption,” allowing people to pay for each tree’s care in return for receiving the harvest when it was ready. The customers knew they were getting good fruit from a small farm using sustainable methods. The farmers got a guaranteed price for a certain amount of fruit in advance of the season, allowing them to plan better and reduce waste.
In 2017, they expanded 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 on, read about a farm, who runs it and the methods they use. They can then adopt a plant or part of a field to receive the harvest - whether it’s avocados from Spain, or potatoes from Germany, or even wine from France. If there’s any leftover, customers can also order boxes of surplus food.
The platform had been slowly growing in popularity but last year’s lockdowns gave it a massive boost. More people were turning to online grocery shopping or looking for new ways to make sure they could access fresh food. Sales tripled, and the number of farmers signed on to the scheme also doubled. CrowdFarming says it is now serving 200,000 households 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 shift in consumer behaviour,” says co-founder Gonzalo Úrculo.
As for farmers, “many have seen their traditional sales channels collapse because of the coronavirus crisis.”
How does it shorten food supply chains?
CrowdFarming is ambitious. In its marketing materials, it insists it is “not trying to digitalise the traditional food supply chain. We are not an online supermarket. We are building technology for a new food supply chain that allows new experiences for consumers, stable income for farmers, and that rethinks the whole cultivation, harvest, and logistic process.”
It’s one of a spate of initiatives that have sprung up in recent years to “shorten” the food supply chain, offering customers more transparency about where their food is coming from and giving farmers respite from the pressures of 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. It 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 becoming more popular,” says Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Food Tank, a think tank focused on fixing the food system, “whether it’s preventing food waste or supporting regional food systems.”
“These kinds of innovations were being developed pre-pandemic, but the need for farmers and food businesses to pivot is increasing their spread.”
Ordering in bulk requires ‘a mindset shift’
Operating across Europe, CrowdFarming offers a far bigger network than most online farmers’ markets or CSA models. Customers also don’t have to rely on options available in their local area. But there is no middleman to “bundle” items together - central to the goal of reducing inefficiencies is that customers buy directly from the farmers. That typically means buying in bulk.
“It requires a mindset shift on the part of the consumer,” says Abigail, 38, who works in tech in the U.K and has used CrowdFarming to adopt a sheep (receiving the cheese from its milk in return), an orange tree and a walnut tree.
“It was intimidating at the start… but it pushed me to think and research the ways in which people traditionally manage large harvests,” she says. While things like cheese and nuts can last a long time, she has had to learn how to dry, pickle and candy citrus fruit to preserve parts of her orders - skills she thinks others may have learned during lockdown too.
For Abigail, the past year increased the appeal of options like CrowdFarming because access to fresh food hasn’t felt so reliable. “I think understanding how much we rely on, for example, mainland Europe for our fresh fruit has expanded, and people want to explore ways they can take responsibility for their own food,” she says.
A relative newcomer to the idea, 44-year-old Karin Gstöttmayr who lives with her family in Switzerland, recently made her first order of a 4kg box of avocados. They came with storage instructions to help the fruit ripen gradually.
“It worked out perfectly,” she says. “We were able to stretch the consumption to almost three weeks. They were flawless and delicious.” Some customers also split large deliveries with friends and neighbours.
Karin puts the platform’s surging popularity down to a growing desire to make consumption “more conscious, to tackle climate change and to feel independent from the ‘big, evil corporations’.” CrowdFarming has a “very personal set-up” which fits this perfectly, she says.
What are the environmental benefits?
These social and environmental benefits are at the heart of what CrowdFarming claims to be doing. All the farms it lists are organic and have to meet certain sustainability requirements in terms of their production methods, packaging and working conditions.
Pandemic permitting, adopters can even visit the farms to check it out for themselves. The idea is that transparency incentivizes sustainable practices, and farmers can invest more in it because they are receiving a higher price for their produce.
Marco Jostmeier, a potato farmer in Germany who sells through CrowdFarming, notes that this level of transparency and personalization comes with “a huge 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 are happy to do it.”
“We believe that the bond between producer and consumer will strengthen in the future and that more consumers want to know where their food comes from,” Jostmeier says. “CrowdFarming is not the only way but... it is one good way.”
The online platform is much less local than many sustainable food models. Still, Úrculo argues that it is far more environmentally-friendly for European customers to buy avocados or mangoes from Spain than from South America or Asia, where these products would typically be shipped from.
“Transportation represents 6 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in EU food-chains,” he says. “The most important factor is what we cultivate and how we do it.
“A short, fast, and efficient supply-chain reduces energy consumption and thus CO2 emissions.”
While the social and environmental impacts can be hard to unpick, Karin and Abigail say they hope they are contributing to a positive change - even if in a small way.
“Eating oranges thousands of miles from their origin is always going to come at some cost ... but what I've read and experienced is sufficient to suggest to me that I am making reasonable enough choices,” says Abigail.
Karin agrees. The social and environmental benefit “is important to me,” she says. “I hope I am supporting a good cause here enjoying guacamole.”