How Ants and an App Could Save Local Food
by Brad Masi
When I set out to learn about local food startup Farm Fare, I did not expect to get a lesson in myrmecology. I arrived at the Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen to meet with Cullen Naumoff, a cofounder of Farm Fare, a company that aims to disentangle the often-twisted pathways by which farmers find buyers in Northeast Ohio. The arduous process of coordinating multiple farmers—each with his or her own small quantity of items—presents a barrier to businesses that otherwise might source locally grown foods.
Cullen bounced from stacks of papers, piles of produce, and a delivery van. She shuffled boxes of eggs, lettuce, tofu, carrots, and other goodies for the day’s deliveries. Once the boxes were packed, she gave instructions to the driver about a rendezvous point in Avon, where he would meet another truck coming with food from Oberlin. As the driver pulled out of the parking lot, I had an opening to ask Cullen how Farm Fare worked.
She laughed and launched into a description of food distribution among Malaysian ant colonies, referencing a meeting she had a few years back with an Ohio State entomologist who compared streamlining local food distribution with sophisticated food movement patterns of ants. This understanding of ant behavior elegantly illustrates Farm Fare’s model for connecting food supplies from multiple Northeast Ohio communities to large buyers.
“Despite the growing popularity of eating local, it really is not as easy to do as it should be,” Cullen said. “Buyers often find that ordering apples grown halfway around the world is easier than buying from an orchard just outside of Cleveland. Current logistics and support for moving food efficiently around Northeast Ohio is limited, making it difficult to compete with food shipped in from afar.”
Farm Fare cofounder Laura Adiletta pointed out: “Farmers ship their food out of the region to a central warehouse, where it’s aggregated by a distributor, marked up and then brought back into the region less fresh and more expensive.” Farm Fare seeks to create more profits for farmers, more convenience for buyers, improve fresh food access, and build stronger local economies.
Like interlinked ant colonies, Farm Fare works to improve distribution logistics by augmenting the activity of five local food hubs, which aggregate food from multiple farmers to make larger volume sales easier.
The growth of food hubs throughout Northeast Ohio fills an important infrastructure gap that limits the competitiveness of locally grown foods. Depending on the needs of farmers and buyers in their locale, food hubs offer a mix of services that can include food storage, inventory, food processing, entrepreneurial training, logistics, distribution, and marketing support. Many communities realize the economic potential of food hubs to create new enterprises and jobs in otherwise empty urban buildings. In addition to Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen, Farm Fare partners with Lake-to-River Cooperative in Youngstown, the Oberlin Food Hub, Local Roots in Wooster, and, soon, the Community Harvest Food Hub in Ashtabula.
Laura directs logistics from an office in Ohio City. She described her vision for a local food system equipped to compete with the major food companies. “We are working to change a system that hasn’t changed since the 1950s,” she said. “Large corporations have largely created the current system, and we are working on bringing opportunity back to the regional scale.”
Farm Fare makes economic sense. Ohio is the fifth-largest specialty food producer in the nation. Money spent on local food helps recirculate wealth back into local economies, instead of to national or global conglomerates.
Farm Fare focuses on two primary strategies: communication and distribution. Their communication relies on an app that consolidates the food inventories of participating food hubs. Buyers can search options and order food online. Food hub inventories adjust in real time as transactions are made. This regional network improves the consistency of the local food supply. For example, when the Oberlin Food Hub ran out of peaches, Youngstown was able to tap its growers to make up for Oberlin’s deficiency.
Farm Fare then coordinates deliveries. A car-sharing version of local foods, Farm Fare has a network of businesses with trucks that are otherwise used for only a few days of the week. Currently, Farm Fare contracts with Raw Trainer, a vegan, raw foods company; and Bridgeport Café, a healthy food distributor in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. Instead of sitting idle, the trucks deliver to Oberlin College, Nature’s Oasis, Cleveland Vegan, Bar Cento, Market Garden Brewery, fire food + drink, and public school districts in Sandusky, Westlake, Grafton, Wellington, and Olmsted Falls.
Farm Fare received initial startup support from Dan Conway, co-owner of the Great Lakes Brewing Company. He has been involved for the past several years with the Slow Money initiative, which invests in local businesses that employ sustainable practices.
Ultimately, Laura characterized Farm Fare as “competing with economies of scale by leveraging economies of collaboration.” Economies of scale rely on global reach to create a consistent, cheap, and reliable food supply. An economy of collaboration brings together a local network of smaller producers and businesses that together can reach markets more effectively than working on their own.
“As a culinary renaissance takes place in Cleveland, it provides new economic opportunities for the region’s farmers,” Laura said. “But making it easier to connect with them is key to the growth of the local food economy.”
To learn more about Farm Fare, visit FarmFare.io, or download the app for iPhone or Android.