Covid-19 may be wreaking havoc on the world; but when it comes to spurring a new bout of interest in local food, it has clearly been a boon. Even with the pandemic-driven increase in demand, small and mid-size farmers are still struggling to optimize production and figure out which markets are right for them. Between direct-to-consumer, farmers’ markets, food hubs, restaurants, hospitals, and other institutions, it can become overwhelming and create inventory tracking headaches.
“Right now, if a farmer is using other technology to sell through all of those channels, they have five systems to log into, they have to manage inventory independently, and they have to figure out how much product they should sell through each channel,” Kami Semick, co-founder of Food4All, tells AFN. “This farmer burnout is exactly the problem we are solving.”
Food4All describes itself as a tech company that helps farmers and value-added food producers connect to new markets. It allows producers to sell direct to consumers online, or to use its mobile point-of-sale tech to complete transactions in person. It counts roughly 800 farmers on its platform.
Now, Food4All wants to help farmers tap into a new segment of potential business.
It recently received a $100,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Small Business Innovation Research program, which is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant will be used to fund a pilot project in Louisiana to develop technology for small and mid-size farmers and food producers who sell directly to schools, restaurants, hospitals, and other institutional buyers in their regions.
“This grant will help to extend our platform,” Semick says. “Wholesale buyers have different buying needs. They often need to buy in quantity and that’s one of the inhibitors to buying directly from smaller farms [as] they’re unable to get the quantity and consistency they need. A consumer wants to see a lovely picture on a website and a description of goods, but a wholesale buyer wants to know the grade, how much is available, and how soon they can get it.”
Other participants in the pilot project include VertueLab, a Portland-based cleantech startup supporter, Louisiana State University Agriculture Center, Oregon State University’s Innovation Co-Lab, and MarketMaker, a national network connecting farmers and fisherman to buyers.
As Covid-19 has limited face-to-face interactions, the ability to take farm and food sales online has allowed many producers to keep their businesses afloat, particularly if they relied on wholesale accounts for income. As restaurants have curtailed menus or closed their doors permanently, farmers who relied on them felt a serious squeeze.
Online platforms helping farmers connect with potential buyers aren’t a new concept. But what makes Food4All different is its ability to aggregate multiple channels in one place to streamline operations.
“We have producers on the platform selling through their own website, through Food4All, and multiple farmers’ markets at the same time. All of those sales are going into the same database and that enables the farmer to run things like a true business,” Semick says.
“They can run reports, understand which channels are the most profitable, who their best customers are, and which products are selling at what times and to whom.”
In the same way that Covid-19 has forced restaurant operators to adopt new technologies, it has encouraged many farmers and food producers to explore new sales channels. When the pandemic hit, many farmers’ markets took their operations online, leading to a burst of new users for the platform.
“The sellers on our platform who were using it prior to Covid-19 saw a 3x to 5x increase in sales. A lot of them are selling out of products,” Semick adds.
“Whether that will stay after the pandemic is anybody’s guess, but it’s a benefit to local food. More people are interested in where their food is coming from. We are even seeing farmers pre-selling their wintertime CSA [community-supported agriculture] shares and already selling out.”