Despite the growing popularity of local food—sales more than doubled between 2008 and 2014—most small farms struggle to survive. A new startup called Farmcation is designed to offer a new source of income by connecting farmers with nearby city dwellers who want to visit.
At a test event for the startup, now in beta, Bay Area visitors traveled to an organic family farm in the Central Valley, where they met the farmer, got a tour, picked strawberries, and ate a picnic lunch spread out on a long table next to an orchard and cooked by chefs from a San Francisco restaurant.
"We are answering the question of how we might support small-scale farmers and food producers by capitalizing on an increasingly food-curious and food-conscious population, and in turn how we might make small-scale scale farming more economically viable," says Grace Lesser, co-founder of Farmcation. "Ultimately, we seek to make our cultural relationship with food less transactional and more relational."
Lesser was inspired to create the company after her own mini-experiment in farming. "This past summer, I got married, but my husband and I decided to do things a little bit differently: We decided to grow all the food for the wedding," she says. After raising 65 chickens and growing an acre of vegetables—and, more importantly, meeting the local farming community—she better understood how difficult agriculture is financially.
The average net income for small-scale farming families is $20,000, and almost all small farmers have to find a second source of income off the farm. "Many stop farming," she says. "A lot of farmers in recent years have started to layer on additional forms of revenue, such as farm tours, farm dinners or DIY classes—but many of them have a hard time investing the resources to do proper marketing and acquire a steady stream of customers. We see a tremendous opportunity to support revenue generation and support small-scale farmers."
A growing number of people, particularly millennials, are interested both in where their food comes from and in spending their money on experiences, rather than things. Lesser and co-founder Caitlyn Toombs saw an opportunity to bring those consumers to farms for tours, fruit picking, actual farm-to-table meals, or classes in making pickles or cheese.
"We've found that unique, accessible experiences focused on food and farming can be hard to find, even in our own backyard," she says.
For farmers, beyond an additional source of income, it can also be a way to encourage guests to enroll in a CSA subscription or market their other products.
Of course, most farmers don't have much spare time, and hosting a group of visitors for a picnic lunch might be more complicated than getting a room ready for an Airbnb guest. Farmcation is still figuring out those details.
"We’ve recognized that many small farms simply do not have the capacity or the wherewithal to pour resources and time into planning and executing on events and workshops, so we are playing with the possibility of providing a more comprehensive set of consulting services," Lesser says.
The startup is part of an innovation course called Eat Think Design at the University of California-Berkeley, and plans to slowly finalize its business model, with another event this summer. "We want to scale thoughtfully and patiently, in alignment with our core values as a company, though our initial feedback has given us a lot of positive momentum," she says.
Photos: Kim Heath