2012-07-11

Co.Exist

FarmHopping Saves Small Farms By Letting You Take Control Of Them

Like Farmville? Well, now you can (for a small fee) play with a real-life farm in Bulgaria. Are you ready to feed real sheep online?

Small farms may get a lot of business in big city farmer’s markets, but they still struggle; it’s hard to compete against the massive industrial farms that supply much of the food we find in supermarkets and chain restaurants. But what if there were a way to get all the people that care deeply about small farms to help them directly, outside of just buying products? After all, platforms like Kickstarter have helped small projects that might otherwise be dead in the water raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from passionate--but often random--Internet users.

Rossi Mitova, a recent business school graduate, is taking on the challenge. The idea to help small farms came to her when a friend fell in love with a small farm in the mountains of Bulgaria (her home country) and decided to pay to take care of two sheep living there. After speaking with the farm’s owners about the difficulties of running a small, sustainable farm, Mitova thought: "Why not outsource that, create a web platform, and allow people to do what my friend did?"

And so the FarmHopping concept was born. The soon-to-be-launched platform will allow users to purchase animals from a network of farms (an upfront fee and a monthly fee) and make decisions about what to do with them--for example, whether sheep should be milked to make yogurt, milked to make cheese, or not milked much at all so that they produce more offspring. If a sheep has offspring, users can decide to pay to take care of them, put them back on the market for FarmHopping to deal with, or sell them to other users for market rate.

The service is launching with just one location to start: Farm Perun in Kresna, Bulgaria--the farm where Mitova’s friend bought the sheep. There will be 250 sheep for purchase, with an upfront cost of 15 to 20 pounds and then an additional monthly cost of 10 to 15 pounds for users (the cost will vary by farm once more farms are added). The expenses will cover food, labor, and everything else related to the animals. A farm could pay for almost all of its expenses by selling access to animals through FarmHopping. "We cover the farm’s production costs, food, and all the labor. They receive a share of what we make on the website," explains Mitova.

In addition to the satisfaction of taking care of (or controlling, depending on how you look at it) a real-life animal, FarmHopping users will also be able to stay at the farms that they support and partake in the products that their animals are producing. If you own one sheep, for example, you would be allowed to stay at the farm for three days, and if you owned five sheep, you could stay for considerably longer. " If you have a sheep, you have the right to the milk that it produces," says Mitova.

Once Farm Perun is up and running on the FarmHopping platform, Mitova plans to add on a water buffalo farm that produces homemade mozzarella--also in Bulgaria. She’s starting with farms in her home country because it’s easiest, but eventually hopes to expand internationally. Eventually, Mitova also hopes to allow users to purchase crops the same way they buy animals.

And what if all of the owners of Farm Perun’s sheep decide they are going to stop milking their sheep? There will be safeguards, says Mitova. "If you don’t feed your animal online, we’re not going to let it die. If you decide to not milk your animal in forever, we won’t let that happen."

There is already a place where users can virtually participate in a real farm. MyFarm, a site led by the U.K.'s National Trust, allows users to vote on decisions at a 2,500-acre organic farm. But that experiment is intended to teach the public how farms work; FarmHopping has the loftier ideal of changing the way small--often organic--farms are financed.

FarmHopping launches with Farm Perun on August 20.