Farmstr Is Bringing Tech's Venture Capital Cash to Sustainable Ag

The year-old tech start-up gets a big boost with $1.3 million in investments.

(Photo: Facebook)

May 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

It's a lovely experience to head down to the neighborhood farmers market to do your weekly shopping. As wonderful as the produce and community may be, we're kidding ourselves by saying the food is "local." The farmers, many of whom wake up well before dawn to pack up their harvest and make what's often an hours-long drive to set up their stall close to you, would beg to differ.

Not only is there the packing and driving and unpacking, but not everyone who shows up to fondle eggplants and poke at peaches buys anything. Some markets draw more browsers than buyers, meaning farmers earn less. Customers can be picky, used to paying less than $3 for supermarket eggs rather than $6 for a dozen laid by coddled, pastured birds.

The community supported agriculture model, which gets producers their money before the season begins, has certain advantages for farmers, but CSAs have their drawbacks as well. Agriculture is inherently unpredictable, and weather, pests, and other factors make it difficult to deliver on the exact harvest a shareholder was promised at the beginning of the growing season.

Inefficiencies, outdated market models, and a physical and economic divide between consumers and producers make sustainable farming another sector begging for a bit of tech disruption. And this week, Farmstr, a start-up based in Washington state, reported that it had raised $1.3 million in angel investment. The website, which launched last year, connects users directly to the farmers in their area, giving the growers and ranchers a platform for selling their goods—from grass-fed beef to honey by the gallon.

Farmstr’s founder, Janelle Maiocco, attributes the early accolades her company has received to its success in bridging the gap between suppliers and consumers who are willing to pay a fair price for food that's been produced on a small, sustainable scale. “Pardon the cliché, but people are hungry for change and the ability to impact the national food system," says Maiocco, who grew up around farming in rural Washington state. "They’re done with local food being marginalized. It’s a really ripe time from a market opportunity standpoint.”

With its new venture funding, it's tempting to lump in Farmstr with the "überize everything" narrative of the contemporary tech world, but the work is far more personal for Maiocco. She watched as her cousin was forced to sell the northwestern Washington dairy and egg farm her grandfather had started decades ago. She founded Farmstr with that loss in mind and with a heart for consumers too. Which is why neither group pays anything to join the site, and the company only takes a cut if a transaction occurs.

Despite Americans’ growing unease with processed foods and an increase in local, sustainable food systems, Maiocco says clean, local food can still be difficult to find. The motivated have access if they wake up early enough on Saturday for their local farmers market or if they live near a Whole Foods—but that only accounts for a small percentage of the population. Farmstr wants everyone else to be able to eat that way too. “Let’s give them access,” Maiocco says.

While the site's scope is limited to the Pacific Northwest, Maiocco says her goal is national dominance, but she wants to get it right out West first. The $1.3 million Farmstr received in its first round of fund-raising will be used to strengthen the product and prepare it for expansion to other cities.

“We’re patient and impatient at the same time,” she says. “We want to get our platform ready to scale, so that when we go to the next city and the next city and the next city, we’ve done it the right way. We’re listening to all the needs of the producers, and listening to the desires of the customers. We want to help that magic happen.”