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Local food anywhere
Self-proclaimed hobby gardeners Ted Myers and Chad Treloar know how to start small and scale big.
Their company, Urban Greens, began in the basement of their home in Iowa City, Iowa, with a hydroponic system (a method of growing plants without soil, just nutrients and water) set up to grow baby greens, microgreens, and micro herbs year-round.
Since 2017, Urban Greens has sold to local farmers markets and restaurants, and now with the help of a digital tool, Forager, they’re able to supply four retailers in 13 locations with their fresh produce.
“After our first farmers market season and working with restaurants, we started to hit a ceiling. As we gained more experience in hydroponics and started to expand our operation, we ran into an issue where we needed to find avenues to a larger volume of products. At that point, we shifted from microgreen production sold as garnishes to restaurants and started focusing on baby green mixes that we could sell more broadly to consumers, grocery stores, and retail centers,” recalls Myers.
Procurement Process Challenges
The produce Urban Greens grows goes from seed to harvest in just eight days, leaving little margin for error and inefficiencies.
Myers and Treloar recognized early on that this fast turnaround presents significant challenges, especially when expanding the business to work with more retailers. Clear communication about inventory, orders, and delivery is key.
“Because we’re local and grow things very rapidly, we prefer to deliver multiple times a week with smaller volume orders to ensure what we’re selling is as fresh as possible. It also increases the amount of communication between buyer and seller. Trying to track down produce managers and the folks who are making decisions at each of those storefronts on a day-to-day basis becomes an incredibly time- and energy-consuming process.”
Forager as a Solution
Forager streamlines the messy communications exchange between growers like Urban Greens and its retailers, which typically is a mixed bag of paperwork, faxes, email threads, and phone calls.
The online dashboard in Forager serves as an availability manager (AVM), a database into which producers input all of their products for sale. The listings can be turned on and off based on inventory and edited as prices change. All of this can be done remotely, and it’s reflected in real time.
Buyers have access to each grower’s AVM and utilize the platform for communication, ordering, delivery, and payment.
“The classic example we heard early on when we started this company was about one grocer with six locations and a warehouse,” says David Stone, founder and CEO of Forager. “During the height of the season, he would receive 30 to 40 emails from farmers with their product lists, each with about 20 to 30 items. He would print them, lay them out on the table, then input them into a Google Sheet and individually email each one of the farmers back.”
Grocers are not done once they complete this paper-heavy data input process. They then have to coordinate the delivery and payment processing.
The Local Food Movement
Local food is the No. 1 product consumers look for when shopping at the grocery store.
According to Stone, “The trend is so strong that 67% of consumers will actually switch grocers to find local food. The market is growing fast. More and more consumers are wanting and demanding the freshest, healthiest, highest-quality food that is available.”
Producers like Myers and Treloar are well suited to answer the call for more locally grown food.
“When we started this operation, something that became apparent as we had conversations with our farmers market consumers or chefs and folks working in kitchens in town was everyone is very interested in where their food comes from and how it is grown,” reflects Myers.
He continues, “I think part of that is due to food safety recalls, increasing concern about natural resource management, climate change, and the health crisis. These are all factors that lead an individual to feel a lot more curious about what’s going on with the food system, and where, and how they’re getting their food.”
Urban Greens is uniquely positioned to fulfill the interests of consumers who care deeply about buying produce that is grown right up the road from where it is sold.
Opportunity to Innovate
However, the local food movement isn’t unfamiliar with challenges. It already lacks standardized data for buyers and producers, which is essential to create and maintain an efficient marketplace.
When consumers enter a grocery store, they expect quality products available on demand. “If you’re a grocer and you’re concerned about consumer demand and margins, product assortment, and all the rest of the things that make your business, if you have no data, it makes it very difficult to plan and price and partner with your farmers,” explains Stone. “The stakes are higher, ergo, the growers need to have a higher degree of sophistication of planning. Farmers on a base level and from the strategic level didn’t have the tools.”
For any sort of tool meant for the retailer and producer, ease of use is essential. Stone says, “It [Forager] is a very light piece of software, and we did this intentionally so there would be very few barriers for farmers. Everything we do can be managed from their in-box, just like they do now. They don’t need anything special; there is no application to download. It’s all in the cloud in a web online form.”
About the impact of digital solutions like Forager on the local food market, Myers says, “Forager has found a wonderful niche that addresses a lot of the difficulties and struggles that local producers would often face in trying to get their product to a valuable market. Most of the time, they’re restricted to local farmers markets or CSAs and are often overlooked and left out of the greater commercial market. That’s really the realm where the big national distributors dominate, and it’s not necessarily a sustainable model for the future. I think Forager could be a very essential part of developing the local food model across the nation or world.”