Community supported agriculture and other farm-to-consumer schemes potentially offer a great way for independent farmers to compete in a food market dominated by uber-farms, mega-distributors, and large supermarkets. But selling direct does have its challenges, according to Will Lau, a food-focused technologist in New Zealand. Suddenly, farmers can find themselves doing jobs they aren’t trained for, or don’t have time for: sales, customer service, and order-fulfilment, for example.
And, the extra tasks can be overwhelming, he says. Lau recently spoke with a farmer on New Zealand’s South Island, who has cut his customer base from 600 to 150, because he can’t cope with the workload. "He was starting to have an impact on the food in his area. People wanted to go local and organic, rather than through the main markets," Lau says. "But, at 600 customers, his family life was deteriorating."
To help food businesses sell direct, Lau has come up with a new ordering-and-delivery management system that he says takes out a lot of the hassle. Called BuckyBox, the web-based service helps farmers keep up with orders and address changes, work out how much food is needed weekly, and the most efficient way of loading and delivering the boxes at the doorstep. Lau describes BuckyBox as mix between a Salesforce.com-type customer management system and a "light version of something you might use at Fedex."
Lau claims BuckyBox, which is in beta, will cut the average farmer’s admin load from two days a week, to just 2 hours. And, as a result, he hopes the service will catalyze local food production and distribution, putting small businesses on a more equal footing IT-wise, and helping box-operators to expand further.
"We want to make it viable again for small farms," Lau says. "Customers want local, fresh, direct food. It’s just a problem for small farms to be financially viable. If we can remove the major impediment to these guys selling direct, it should help them. This admin is killing them at the moment."
To use BuckyBox, customers will pay a small commission on their total trade through the system (the numbers are still being worked out). But Lau isn’t looking to get rich. Two-thirds of annual profits will go to five sustainable food organizations, including 30 Project, in New York (the other third will go back to BuckyBox’s investors).
"We’ve got a lot of groups who work in specialist areas. Ultimately, we’d like to create a space where people who are working on a better food system collaborate more at the project level," Lau says.