Much like the zeitgeist term “Internet of Things, the use of the popular slogan “farm to table” is confusing marketing speak widely subject to personal interpretation. The farm part is fairly easy to understand, but table conjures up the image of local tomato grower driving up to your home and placing a pound of heirlooms on your kitchen counter. If only that were the case. Yes, it’s a “Portlandia” skit come to life.
In broad brush strokes, the world of farm-to-table is two businesses—tech-driven B2B logistics platforms that connect farms to retailers and restaurants, and the far-more-challenging niche world of home delivery of farm-fresh produce.
Speaking of Portland—the one in the Northeast part of the U.S.—a new enterprise called Forager is an app-based ecosystem that offers a farm-to-table solution connecting local growers to retailers, restaurants and market vendors. Forager allows commercial buyers of fresh farm goods to see what local farmers are growing and have in stock, and then place orders accordingly. Forager CEO David Stone says the system eliminates what he calls a “manual, paper intensive, error-prone process.”
“More and more people are putting local food on their plates,” Stone told a local Portland TV station. “[The farm-to-table movement] is growing really fast, but the technology hasn’t really focused on it yet.”
Stone’s goal is to make Forager a nationwide platform, but in its early days the technology is being utilized by farmers in Maine and New Hampshire. His immediate goal is to get the technology in the hands of growers throughout New England and upstate New York.
B2B farm-to-table solutions abound focusing on the part of the value chain that put fresh goods into the hands of resellers. Pointing to the glut of innovators looking at this growing part of the food tech industry, the 2017 Food + City Challenge featured such F-2-T solutions providers as Bucketload, Farm Fare, and Origintrail. There also are plenty of tech newcomers to support this new-ish-IoT supply chain. Companies such as Fresh Surety provide technology that calibrates freshness of goods as they travel from grower to marketplace.
A few daring entrepreneurs have attempted to tackle the business of delivering those farm-fresh goodies to consumers—essentially a specialized grocery delivery service. Any of the countless supermarket-to-home services will deliver a bunch of celery or a pound of oranges, but those selections hinge on the untrained eye of your average Instacart employee. For field-to-home goodness, subscription-based startups such as New York’s Farm to People and Texas-based Farmhouse Delivery have heavily curated weekly services that bring seasonal produce to your door.
Cost is the significant issue for bringing that ear of corn picked that morning directly to your kitchen. With low margins and an elusive target market, companies such as Farmhouse Delivery charge a one-time membership fee and weekly or bi-weekly service of a medium bushel (five-seven items) for $27.00 or a large bushel (nine-11 items) for $39.99. For better margins and a higher per-customer order, Farmhouse also delivers prepared foods, meat, poultry and dairy items. The target for such services is the subset of families who want to eat healthy and have the resources to buy local and organic without a weekly trip to the farmers market.
At the other end of the farm-to-retail-to-table spectrum is a potentially large and socially responsible opportunity, but one that is far less sexy. Solutions for getting fresh food to underserved “food deserts” attracts neither visionaries nor startup capital, leaving such programs as the St. Louis Metro Market, a non-profit that converts city buses into mobile farmers markets, as a placeholder for future social entrepreneurs.