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Distribution alternatives: fair trade from farm to fork

In order to regenerate agriculture, we must also change how we distribute and sell its produce

14 Feb 2023
EIT Food South
13 min reading time

The regenerative transition does not involve only the producers who are striving to improve soil health, increase biodiversity and grow high quality food. It also depends on those distributors who are providing alternatives to the way we currently distribute and sell food. In order to regenerate agriculture, we must also change how we distribute and sell its produce.

Farmers and livestock breeders often work without knowing how much produce they are going to sell. Added to this, farmers’ profits are unstable and frequently conditioned by factors beyond their control such as adverse climate, price volatility and loss of negotiating power. In this context the adoption of regenerative practices is a courageous step, a decision to care for the planet and produce high-quality food. A risky decision in an agrifood system characterized by instability, where the intermediary is often the one who decides what the farmer grows, how he should grow it and for how much he can sell it.

But against this unfavourable backdrop, we are seeing more and more innovative alternatives to traditional distribution, initiatives that involve collaborating with producers to make the road from farm to fork fairer in every sense. So, just as we have seen the rise of regenerative production systems, we are also seeing the emergence of alternatives to traditional intermediation. These innovative ideas have led to various types of businesses that share a common goal: protect the interests of conscientious consumers who want to buy regeneratively produced food, and make selling easier for farmers so they can focus on what they do best, grow food.

The story behind selling regenerative produce

CrowdFarming is one of these examples: a platform operating throughout Europe helping farms to sell directly to the final consumer. “But we take it a step further. It’s a ‘one-stop-shop’. As well as participating in a marketplace, producers have access to logistical services, high quality customer service and a powerful marketing team that works on brand communication and the personal story behind each product”, explains Cristina Domecq, CrowdFarming’s Impact & Sustainability Officer.

In fact, they don’t really think of themselves as intermediaries: “It’s a fine line. But we don’t buy food, we connect the two parties at either end of the supply chain and charge for the services we provide: the platform logistics, customer service and marketing. The producers set their prices. We don’t set the price, so there is no pressure made to take advantage of the fact that it is a perishable product, forcing farmers to sell the product at reduced prices before it goes to waste”, points out Domecq.

The platform serves the whole of Europe, although at the moment its biggest market is in German-speaking countries, followed by France, the UK and Switzerland.

170 people work in CrowdFarming, most of them in Madrid, and they have specialized teams in Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. “These teams connect directly with the farmers”, Domecq continues.

The idea came about when two of the platform’s founders, the Úrculo brothers, realized that their orange farm was consistently losing money. “But before taking the difficult step of selling the business, they tried to salvage the situation themselves. They started selling directly to the end consumer, which is the main purpose of CrowdFarming”.

This also marked the creation of one of their distinguishing features: adoption, whereby the consumer reserves the a productive unit (a tree, a plot of land or an animal) for the next harvest. “This enables producers to predict future sales, thus solving one our current food system’s main problems – food waste. They also know what price they are going to sell at and how much they are going to sell, as they know how many units have been adopted. Although farmers can still make one-off sales, the system allows them to plan ahead.”, explains Domecq. Furthermore, adoption gives the consumer benefits, such as naming your tree, or planning a trip to the farm to see it.

CrowdFarming’s brand identity was shaped by its concern with the issue about producing before knowing whether you will be able to sell, at a time when, on top of everything else, the trees in the brothers’ orange farm were suffering from a disease. Given that many consumers were visiting the orange grove, they decided that “instead of replanting without knowing whether the product was going to be sold, they asked people: ‘Hey, would you like to replant this tree and we will look after it?” Soon, all the trees in the orange grove were adopted. That was the moment when they saw that there were other ways of growing”. After learning what worked for them on their farm, in 2017 CrowdFarming became what it is now, a platform where farmers are provided with a range of services to sell directly to a European-wide client base, made up of over 300,000 consumers”.

Indeed, those consumers are key to the success of options such as CrowdFarming. That is why the platform makes such a big effort to provide them with information: “Consumers look for the products they want on our website and they are shown lots of farmers who can be filtered by country. They can read the main characteristics of each farm, the product and the producer. We add icons that provide additional information so that consumers can find out if the farmer is in transition to organic, whether they are fully organic, whether they use renewable energies, whether they are under 40, whether they use plastic in their packaging or not… a data set that can help you decide what produce is right for you”.

Consumer awareness is key

But consumer expectations are a big challenge for this type of marketing model. The way we consume nowadays, the immediacy, everything available all the time, is something these producers have to deal with. Because guaranteeing fresh produce that takes into account the time restraints of growers often means that the fruit isn’t in the warehouse, and the cheese is not in the cold store waiting to be shipped out.

In CrowdFarming, the buyer is given a series of dates to choose from to receive their order, an order that will not arrive immediately “because the fruit is waiting on the tree”: “You may be buying a crate of tomatoes and they might tell you that they’re not ready to be harvested, that they’ll arrive next week. That is why consumers have to buy into the concept of getting their food direct from nature, and not from a warehouse”, Domecq continues. There is a reason for this approach, which is sometimes less convenient for consumers: “Very often, the produce sits in the warehouse, waiting for intermediaries or consumers to order it. We don’t view that as being efficient, because as fruit and vegetables are perishable, they may end up having to be thrown out. To prevent this, frequently artificial preservatives or ripening processes are applied which may result in the produce losing quality and freshness by the time it reaches consumers. Yes, customers are better served if what they want is for something to reach them in a couple of hours. We propose something different: we pick on demand. This means that the fruit is waiting on the tree, not in the warehouse, and is always harvested in its optimal condition. It’s not always the most convenient system for the consumer, but we believe that it’s important to use fewer resources along the way and for the produce to reach consumers fresh”.

In addition to be able to deliver fresher fruit, picking on demand is a great step forward in addressing one of today’s global challenges: food waste. The EU is estimated to lose or waste around 87.6 million tonnes of food a year. Consumers are responsible for half of this waste, but the other half is lost on the way to the store or to their homes. With platforms such as CrowdFarming, the fruit is sold in bulk not selected based on looks. “We have a rule. If the farmer would eat it, it goes in the box. We have gotten rid of the concept of ugly fruit, cookie cutter fruit that has to look perfect. Consumers who buy this way know what they are buying.

This also means more income for producers. Many of them would not otherwise have a market for this produce, or they would sell at much lower prices to wholesalers to be mixed with other produce that isn’t organic or is of lower quality. Our system lets them sell to the end consumer”.

The CrowdFarming model has several advantages for the different parties involved. In addition to the services we provide them, producers can set their own prices and plan their production thanks to the adoption model. All of this translates into greater financial certainty. “Prices are very volatile and dependent on global markets. We are trying to free ourselves from that and make people aware of what goes into the food they eat. If you go and buy an orange at the supermarket, you know next to nothing about what you are buying. You are bound to buy on the basis of price, and you will go wherever they are cheapest. When you know the farmers, you understand how they grow, you have information about how they operate, you can visit the farms and even adopt a tree… all this motivates farmers to do their utmost to give you the best produce so that you will come back for more. You can’t get this at the supermarket where you are disconnected from the producer”, says Domecq.

For the consumer this way of buying means more information, more decision-making power, greater commitment and access to quality food picked on demand, which goes directly from farm to fork. However, for this commercial model to work and become widespread, consumers must be made aware of its benefits.

“We are here because we want to change the agrifood industry. There are too many things that don’t work for any of the three parties involved: the producer, the consumer and the environment”, concludes Domecq.

The farmer who produces and also sells

The association De Yerba and its website, which sells grass fed meat and poultry, have proven that there is “another way to raise animals” One of its members, José Luis García de Castro, the manager of Poultree farm, is just one of the businesses that sells its meat on this and other platforms that put the farmer at the centre of their business model. Poultree produces pasture-raised chickens. “The chickens live in sheds on wheels which we move forward every twelve days so that the chickens can start a new cycle on a plot where they haven’t been for a year. This way they are always on fresh pasture. We manage the entire cycle, from production to the customers’ door”, explains García de Castro.

Livestock breeders like him see an opportunity on this kind of platform: “Selling to the end consumer is complicated. As farmers we don’t have training or experience when it comes to marketing. I was an horse veterinarian before founding Poultree. I sold my services. I had never sold anything tangible. But demand has grown nonstop. With effort you can carve out a niche in the market”. The demand for their products proves the point. Poultree is growing at more than 30% a year.

Although the term “regenerative production” is becoming familiar to more people (Netflix has even made a documentary about it: ‘Kiss the ground’), lack of awareness is one of the main challenges to producers who take this step: “We all joined De Yerba at the beginning to share knowledge amongst ourselves. Unlike other countries, there is no tradition of 100% grass fed livestock in Spain. Animals have always been fed on cereal, so it is a new way of doing things”.

In García de Castro’s opinion sharing all these experiences with other breeders is essential. But when it comes to selling, it is also important to have access to a network to promote your products. “It is much easier to sell when you can show your produce on a commercial platform with over 8,000 customers. It is a big boost to producers who are getting started and don’t have their own customer base. We have been providing training to breeders. Now we are brainstorming to come up with ideas to create marketing campaigns that can reach a wider public.”

García de Castro and his wife set up Poultree three years ago. Like the producers on CrowdFarming, their sales methods are not the standard ones in today’s consumer society. Attracting consumers is hard. “There are small-scale producers who make one sale a month, or every two months. In our case, we made the decision to make weekly sales right from the beginning. To keep consumers coming back, we believe we have to make the buying as easy as possible. This strategy has been expensive because when you don’t have a minimum volume, things like logistics bring your weekly costs up a lot. But we think this is one of the reasons why Poultree has grown as much as it has”.

Like Domecq, García de Castro recognises that the vast majority of their consumers “are very understanding”. However, “the Amazon model has done a lot of damage, because people want something, they want it now and they want it perfect. For a small-scale producer it is difficult, because we have limited means. People who want our produce have to understand that we cannot always satisfy 100% of demand because if I have 250 chickens, with two wings each, I only have 500 chicken wings. If someone orders 600, I don’t have enough. Preparing the chicken cuts to match everyone’s orders is a weekly challenge for us”.

“Our customers must be made aware of this and help us out with the process. They have to know that often you are talking to a company where just one person is doing the entire process. We try to serve the customer as fast as possible, but we have to look after the animals as well as the consumers and our families. Even so, the fact is that demand is rising”. For Jose Luis the challenge is how to produce in a way that offers people an alternative, a social and environmental model that is different from what already exists. And for the sale of the produce to be different too.

Cooperative selling of regenerative agriculture

Alvelal is an association of growers that was created 7 years ago with the aim to bring together regenerative agriculture producers from the region of Murcia, Granada and Almería in south eastern. “The goal is to gain strength through numbers, both in terms of production and when it comes to looking for market opportunities”, explains Luis LeBlanc, Alvelal Foods’ general manager. Alvelal Foods began as the sales arm of this group of producers in October of 2021. The produce from the area is directed toward markets that truly value the growers’ commitment to regenerative agriculture.

Alvelal Foods operates as a farmer cooperative, focusing exclusively on getting the produce to market. They sell produce from cooperative members located throughout the region: nuts and dried fruit, almond-based products, capers, preserves, extra virgin olive oil, wine and aromatic herbs.

According to LeBlanc, the aim is to continue to broaden their product offering.

In addition to creating a profitable business, the farmer cooperative wants the region to return to the diverse agricultural model of the past: “There used to be more vineyards, but other cash crops drove them out. Since the area is suffering from desertification, the idea was to find out which crops would provide better yields under these harsh conditions. One of Alvelal’s reasons for being is to consider the ecosystem as a whole, we are not just a group of producers. We want to connect natural landscapes and farmland to provide natural corridors so that wildlife can roam freely across the entire territory. Diversity is very important to us, not just crop diversity but also diverse ecosystems”.

Alvelal Foods see themselves as intermediaries, although they distance themselves from the traditional profile. To begin with they are a cooperative whose members are producers. “Our operating costs are low because there are very few of us involved in the process. The ultimate goal is to do perform an activity that producers do not have the time to do on their own.”

One of Alvelal Foods’ main goals is to find a market for all the producers on the platform. To achieve this, there are people working for many brands and product lines. As with the other cases we have discussed here, they want farmers to set their own prices. This is one of challenges facing LeBlanc, “for people to respect the prices which we consider to be fair”.

Under the Alvelal Foods model, profits are shared among the cooperative members. What is more, it is not just a marketplace for farmers. We provide advice about regenerative practices and landscape improvement and have begun initiatives to share machinery among members of the cooperative.

When customers ask us why our prices are higher than in the supermarket, LeBlanc is categorical: “People have to understand supermarket prices do not reflect the true cost of conventional agriculture. They do not include the cost of repairing the damage it causes to soil fertility, the loss of topsoil to erosion, rural depopulation, etc. When you buy regeneratively produced food you are paying for something else, something you can’t always see”.

What we decide as consumers has global repercussions. LeBlanc believes that this mentality “hasn’t really caught on in Spain yet”. Part of our job is to raise awareness. “The idea is for people to see that there are other ways to produce and consume, to set an example and explain what we are doing”.

Agriculture is changing. Thanks to innovative distribution and marketing initiatives, agrifood distribution is changing too. We share a common goal: to look after the earth, animal welfare, biodiversity and product quality. But to achieve this we also have to create a system in which the prices are fair for the producer and where the consumer has clear and meaningful information. Thanks to projects such as these farmers and distributers can work together to have a positive impact.

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