Online Social Marketplace Helps Communities Hungry for Farm Fresh Food Connect to Local Farmers
November 8, 2012 | Gregory Hitchcock
Started more than a year ago by Cousins William and Nathaniel Trienens along with another cofounder, lead developer Gabriel Odess-Gillett, CitySprout is an online social marketplace that was developed to allow communities without easy access to locally grown food, or the population to support a CSA, to more easily connect with local farmers.
The company’s communications director Jesse Mayhew explained that the idea behind CitySprout originated in a discussion about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) between William and a Westport, New York, farmer friend in Lake Champlain where Trienens grew up.
The discussion focused on alternative ways for local farmers to support themselves other than through CSAs and on finding better solutions to accommodate growing demand among consumers without easy access to local produce or the funds to purchase a share in a CSA.
“CSA, it is fair to say, is the standard model for small farms to support themselves,” Mayhew said. “Community members pay seasonally giving a prepayment to a farm which buys the member a season’s worth of (food) shares. Every week, you pick up your food at the farm.”
The problems with CSA, however, as Mayhew explained, are cost and proximity.
“Not everyone can afford these lump sum prepayments that farms usually require. Maybe you will be away for three weeks, but you are still paying for a season’s worth of produce. Maybe you simply cannot afford it. It can be upwards of $500 to sign on,” Mayhew said.
Mayhew said that CSAs are also available only to those consumers in close proximity to farms.
For example, Westport does not have the population to support a CSA.
“Will asked his friend if he could drive down to New York City and you had a CSA down there, would it be worth the trip,” Mayhew said. “The farmer said ‘absolutely’, which got the ball rolling.”
“CitySprout is trying to offer a new model,” he said.
The company has thus built a social marketplace that enables communities that might not have either ready access to locally grown food or the population to support a traditional CSA to more easily connect to and purchase fresh produce from local farmers.
Here’s how it works: A member of a local community, say in Williamstown, MA, goes to the CitySprout website and enters his email and zip code to register and let the company know that he is eager to have access and the ability to order affordable fresh food from local farms. The member of the local community then goes out and recruits other members of his community to sign up and register at CitySprout to show that enough demand exists to warrant CitySprout setting up a community that facilitates the interaction between the community and local farms. Once it is determined that their is sufficient demand from the local community for farm fresh food, the company enlists a local farmer(s) to make food available to that community via the CitySprout website.
“A community can build a Williamstown Community page, for instance,” Mayhew said. “Folks can come to our CitySprout site, put in their email and ZIP code and our site will aggregate them to a community page where others in the ZIP code can join.”
CitySprout membership is free to communities and to anyone who wants to sign up and farmers can sign on for free.
Farmers who use CitySprout will type in their address, their location, and how far they are willing to deliver to, and a list of food communities will be presented to them, Mayhew said.
“Let’s say a Berkshire farmer signs on to the site and says ok there are 50 people in Williamstown that are interested in my food, he can post a share to the site. He would upload a photo of food he is offering, he’d give a description, he’d name a price, and he’d name a time of delivery, and would name a trigger amount,” he explained.
“Everyone associated with the Williamstown Community Page would get hit with an email saying Atlas Farm is offering us this price for these eggs or this meat or any other food product the farmer produces,” Mayhew said.
Everything happens online, from connecting the farmer to the consumer, to purchasing a box of food via credit or debit card, with the final result that the food is delivered to that particular community at a specified date and location, be it a business, office, or plaza.
To make money CitySprout takes a small commission off of each individual share of food sold through the site.
Mayhew said farmers can set their own price so hopefully they can accommodate the company’s commissions.
“And because we are cutting out middle men, wholesalers and retailers that farmers have to work with, farmers get to keep a lot more of the profit from the food they sell,” he said.
“Unlike a CSA, there is no prepayment, and there is no ongoing obligation to buy,” Mayhew said.
Rather than using a CSA model, CitySprout uses a group bind model.
“When a farmer uses our site, the farmers can set their own prices, decide the date of delivery; they are also able to decide what minimum trigger amount they need to sell in order to trigger a delivery,” Mayhew said.
A trigger amount is the minimum number of food boxes purchased online that a farmer is willing to deliver to.
For instance if a farmer is 20 miles or more away from an online community, and that farmer knows there are 50 people in that particular community that are interested in buying from the farm, the farmer can say he needs to sell at least 20 boxes of food to be worth his time to go out there.
“If he fails to sell 20 boxes prior to the date of delivery, then the delivery simply is not activated, and no one gets charged anything. A farmer needs some incentive to use our platform so they are not delivering one box, driving 20 miles to make $20,” Mayhew said.
Mayhew said that incubating the company in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley is perfect and also the wrong place to be.
“We are trying to accommodate communities that don’t have regular access to agriculture,” he said.
Pioneer Valley is one of the most fertile places in the United States for agriculture.
“We have tons of local farms and you can’t throw a stone without hitting one of them,” Mayhew said.
“So, someone in Amherst might not need to have CitySprout deliver to them, because they have the farmers market five minutes away.”
CitySprout has active deliveries going on in the Pioneer Valley, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and at present is focusing its attention on Austin, Texas.
Mayhew explained that the growing season has been slowing down in the Northeastern United States, and due to extensive research Austin seemed like fertile ground for CitySprout to market its solution.
“We landed on Austin because they have a 365 day growing season,” Mayhew said. “They are incredibly sustainable to the sustainable food movement and they have been really, really receptive.”
He admitted that no active deliveries have been set up as yet, but there are six or seven Austin communities trying to grow awareness.
“Our mission is giving local farmers the tools to really flourish, and Austin is the next place we are trying to sprout,” Mayhew said.