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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Startup Profile: Organic and Local Food Delivery Service Born of a Passion for Sustainability

September 2, 2011 |

In 2006, food and agriculture journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey engaged in a public correspondence about the future of small farmers in a large-scale-ag-driven world. In one of the letters, Pollan writes: “Today, I think the most important scale issue is not that ‘big is bad’ but, since big is here to stay, exactly how such entities can engage with small and local ones – indeed, I think this is one of the most momentous questions that confront us, both economically and socially.”

Greenling, the Austin, Texas-based organic and local food delivery service, is perhaps the perfect example of an answer to this question.

In addition to providing a way for consumers to easily incorporate sustainable food into their daily diets, Greenling is focusing on partnerships with companies – like Whole Foods – that have the resources to bring local, sustainable agriculture to an even broader market.

From Farm to Doorstep

Greenling is part high-tech grocery store, CSA, farmers’ market and delivery service, all rolled into one. Greenling sources produce and other foods, such as sustainably raised meats and artisanal cheeses, from more than 50 local and/or organic producers. Consumers can go online and order a weekly produce box, CSA-style, or they can shop around for a box of things they mostly like and then swap out the items they don’t. Once they place their online order, Greenling delivers it to their home – sometimes just hours after it was harvested.

“We know within about 95 percent what we’ll be selling the next week by Friday of the previous week,” explains Greenling Founder Mason Arnold. “In general, farmers will pick stuff earlier in the morning, we’re packing it that afternoon, and it will hit the doorstep that evening. It’s the fastest way to get food from the farm to the table.”

Arnold started Greenling in 2005 out of a passion for sustainability. He said that he was investigating the three main challenges he thought we faced – energy, food and water – and realized that food largely impacts the other two.

“I dug into the food system and realized how broken it was and looked at the things that were being done to fix it,” says Arnold. “Food had to sit around for weeks and weeks. Our whole food system had been built on cheap energy and commodity farm subsidies.”

He says that while his background in chemical engineering (he has a degree from the University of Texas at Austin) gave him a pretty deep understanding of biological systems and how they work, it didn’t necessarily prepare him for the trials and tribulations of running Greenling.

Mason Arnold, Founder and CEO of Greenling

“I didn’t have a lot of experience with produce when we started, so had I known a lot about it I may not have started it,” he jokes. “We had a few expensive lessons earlier on about how produce likes to be treated.”

One such lesson was a crash course in the effects of ethylene, the conclusion of which was that berries don’t like to be stored right next to apples (apples produce a lot of ethylene, a ripening agent, so if you leave a bunch of strawberries next to them overnight, you’ll wake up to a pile of rotting strawberries – as Arnold did).

It Takes a Village

Farmers usually hear about Greenling from other central Texas farmers, Arnold says. He estimates they get about two to four calls a week from farmers who would like to be included in the boxes. For many, Greenling is their primary distribution center, although the company is happy for them to sell at markets and in stores, too. That flexibility gives Greenling an edge over its competitors, says Arnold.

“Our competitors will go to farmers and want to do exclusive things,” he says. “We just stick to our values. We don’t do exclusives with farmers because we want the farmers to sell everything they grow. If we can’t buy it, we want them to sell it to someone else.”

To further support local, sustainable farmers and agriculture, Greenling has partnered with Whole Foods Market, offering their delivery services and products to Whole Foods shoppers. Though hardcore locavores may raise their eyebrows at the pairing, it makes perfect sense to Arnold.

“We don’t want to replace the grocery store. We don’t want to sell toothpaste and deodorant and things like that,” he says. “We’re all about fresh, local food. I’ve always wanted to have a grocery partner so we can send people to the right place. Help them not put hydrogenated oils on their food – because in some respects that cancels out the good effects.”

He explains that while Greenling and Whole Foods operate on different scales size-wise, they have a shared goal of advancing the local agriculture movement, and can help each other do just that.

“Whole Foods has been very value-aligned. They’re definitely not perfect and they’ve got a lot of work to do, including on local sourcing and local supply, so I pitched them on how we could help with that…They wanted to test out what the home delivery looked like and how their customers think about it.”

Old Concepts, New Possibilities

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Greenling is that it’s not a particularly complex or even original idea. Arnold says that he modeled Greenling off of similar businesses, like Planet Organics, that already existed in California, but added better technology, and a user-friendly website.  And yet this simple adaptation is creating a way for consumers to easily incorporate local and sustainable produce into their daily eating habits – no small feat.

Convenience and easy access have long been the selling points of conventional and fast foods. And it’s not hard to see why. After a long day at work, coming up with a meal idea, going to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, and then going home and actually cooking them can seem daunting – and a trip to McDonalds mighty tempting.

“Number one, if you just get home, and you’re too tired to cook, there’s not a lot of restaurants that serve organic and local – so you really have to cook it at home if you’re going to get good, real food,” says Arnold. “It’s an access issue and a time issue. In our culture we’re rewarded for being busy and having everybody work – but it makes it harder to find the time to cook real food.”

That’s where Greenling comes in. Greenling has created a quick and easy online ordering system through which consumers can obtain the sustainable agricultural products that they demand. The company’s solution also reduces carbon emissions and supports local farmers.

Arnold says that while Greenling initially received ardent support from some smaller groups, it’s been “a long journey to educate the general public” about what exactly Greenling does. Many see home delivery services as a luxury, a wasteful service. However, says Arnold, that’s not the case with Greenling. In fact, he says, their trucks use 85 percent less fuel than if all of their customers went to the store themselves.

“Our delivery model is so efficient. We go to a neighborhood and we drop so many baskets in one neighborhood.” He adds, “That’s been an education process. As soon as people really understand what’s going on, they’re very supportive.”

Greenling also offers recipe kits – which Arnold says have gotten “rave reviews” – that contain a menu for a week’s worth of healthy, sustainable, seasonal meals,  plus all of the ingredients and directions needed to make them. In under 30 minutes. So there’s really no excuse for not eating sustainably – at least if you live in Texas between Georgetown and San Antonio, Greenling’s range.

Unfortunately for those of us outside of Texas, there’s no Greenling close by to source our local food. But if things continue to go their way, they hope to one day grow nationwide – supporting local farmers, reducing carbon emissions and helping consumers eat good food across the U.S.

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