Rob Keller of Napa Valley Bee Company, left, with Barnraiser founder Eileen Gordon Chiarello (Photo: Courtesy Barnraiser)

When Crowdfunding Targets Food, Can Real Change Take Root?

Barnraiser helps finance sustainable food and farming projects.
Sep 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Denver-based Foraged Feast had a goal to deliver surplus locally grown food into the hands of people who would happily eat it. Falling Fruit, meanwhile, wanted to turn its Web-based global map of urban food sources into a smartphone app so you could find the nearest avocado tree when tooling around town on your bike. Slow Food for Fast Lives thought you salty tooths deserved Thai- and Indian-flavored savory snack bars.

All these projects have been crowdfunded since the April soft launch of Barnraiser, a Kickstarter-like platform dedicated to sustainable food and farming projects.

The site, which moves from its curated soft-opening phase to an open platform on Sept. 10, is the brainchild of Eileen Gordon Chiarello, a former Apple executive and the wife of chef and vintner Michael Chiarello. Barnraiser, she said, “really came from the last 15 years I spent with my husband growing a variety of food and wine businesses and watching a larger audience of people looking for a deeper relationship with their food.” She hopes it will connect the growing market of consumers concerned with issues of health and sustainability, relay the stories of innovators in the space, and fund the projects they want. “We’re in a position to help power the change,” she said.

Barnraiser operates on the same basic model as crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo but has also offered individualized input to the dozen projects hosted so far, hopping on the phone to give feedback on how project pages can be designed and structured. Because not everyone is a born marketer, Barnraiser’s dashboard functions as a guide, giving project creators prompts for how and when to communicate during their campaigns with example links and suggested language. “I don’t want somebody’s work to not get funded because of that knowledge gap,” Chiarello said.

This gets to the heart of why Barnraiser isn’t just another place to raise capital. The aim is to effect change—connecting people to new initiatives and ideas—through compelling storytelling. She described vacationers coming to Napa for some big glasses of wine but leaving with a newly cultivated interest in issues of sustainability in viticulture. “I’ve watched people respond to stories like this,” Chairello said. “We know that these stories are very intriguing to people if they can see them,” and Barnraiser is hoping to give them much broader, potentially viral, exposure.

She tells the story of Bob “Amigo” Cantisano, a 20-year veteran of the organic movement who helps protect biodiversity by working with heirloom plants that date to the gold rush era. He lives “hand-to-mouth on the grant cycle,” according to Chairello. On Barnraiser, he set out to raise $20,000 and ended up with $34,000, which will help establish a “mother” orchard of drought- and pest-resistant fruit and nut trees from which he can propagate retail saplings. His success on Barnraiser frees him up to do his work, Chiarello said, rather than write grant applications.

Chiarello has big plans. “I want a billion dollars in the hands of the social innovators in the next five years (and I think we can do it),” she told Modern Farmer recently. When I spoke with her, she went even further, saying, “The scale of the opportunity is so much larger than a billion dollars.”

As the success of some Kickstarter projects has shown, crowdfunding can grow to include much bigger and more financially powerful entities. “The benefit to building vertical crowdfunding is bringing in other constituents,” including partnerships with corporations or nonprofits that could provide additional promotions or apply matching funds to amplify what the crowds are already funding, Chiarello explained. That means the projects consumers express interest in through the classic “voting with their dollars” model could affect larger institutional changes too.

In other words, Barnraiser is poised to raise a hell of a lot of roofs.