“My grandfather grew oranges all his life. He never had any comments about the quality of his products, except from the buyers at the supermarkets. They were always complaining, always trying to keep the price down," says Gonzalo Urculo. He wanted to do things differently when he and his brother Gabriel took over their grandfather's orange orchard in 2010. Gonzalo explains: "I studied logistics and did some research on the food chain. I came to the conclusion that the chain is broken. In fact, I think it's the most inefficient chain in the world. We’re using valuable natural resources to grow food that will never be consumed due to huge food waste."
Gonzalo saw that there were already plenty of initiatives at the end of the chain to ‘save’ food that would not make it to the supermarket or be thrown away, such as Too Good to Go. “But we wanted to create a revolution at the beginning of the chain," he explains. The first years were not easy because the brothers lacked knowledge and experience in orange cultivation and had to switch to organic production. However, Gabriel did have experience building websites, so they offered their produce directly to consumers online on the naranjasdelcarmen.com website.
Transparent, fast and a relationship with the farmer
Fast forward to 2022, and CrowdFarming (as the brothers' company has been called since 2017) is a thriving platform with over 200 farmers supplying direct to 350,000 consumers across Europe. CrowdFarming provides logistics and packaging expertise for farmers and teaches them how to communicate directly with customers. The CrowdFarming website is now also available in Dutch.
What's the secret? "We no longer sell loose oranges. Instead you can adopt an orange tree from us, and the fruit is picked from your tree. We see the consumer as a partner to build a relationship with. And this prevents inefficiency,” says Gonzalo. "Normally, farmers grow fruit and vegetables without knowing how much they can sell and at what price. This creates a huge mismatch which the market cannot resolve by itself. Thanks to our adoption model, farmers can produce according to demand. They can plan, and they get a fixed price." Consumers, in turn, get complete transparency. Gonzalo continues: "The food chain lacks transparency. In the supermarket you can see where a product comes from, but you have no idea whether it is from a good company that pays its workers a decent wage." If customers want an even closer relationship, they are welcome to visit the olive or orange orchard where their adopted tree is grown.
CrowdFarming allows you to adopt an orange tree from which your fruit is picked. And the CrowdFarming customer receives freshly picked organic fruit and vegetables. It takes three days to go from the orchard or land to the consumer. This speed also means that the carbon footprint of CrowdFarming logistics is smaller than that of a supermarket, even though it works with much larger volumes. "At a supermarket, there are three weeks between picking and arrival on shelf. This means that fruit, for example, must be refrigerated for a long time, which consumes a lot of energy. It must also be treated with pesticides to keep it shiny," explains Gonzalo.
Avocados with a smaller footprint
All these considerations and dilemmas are shared by the people behind CrowdFarming in blogs on the website. Telling the story is part of their mission. "CrowdFarming is doing very well, thanks in part to the quality of their marketing," says Adam Kybird, who is involved in the platform on behalf of Triodos Food Transition Europe Fund. "The marketing is authentic, based on real stories from farmers but also listening to consumers. This enables a feedback loop between consumer and farmer enabling a new understanding of each other’s needs and leading to product innovation. One example of this is how they now supply smaller boxes of oranges. At first, you had to be a marmalade addict to be able to use all the oranges but now consumers have a range of size options."
Kybird is also impressed by the company's learning ability such as constantly measuring and reducing its own carbon footprint. Interestingly, it can also provide a European alternative to production and distribution from Latin America and Africa for certain types of subtropical fruits, such as avocados and mangoes. A good investment, in short. Kybird adds: "CrowdFarming works to meet all three pillars of our investment philosophy: reducing the footprint of food, ensuring a healthy society and a good price for all."
A global food crisis is currently unlooming, also fuelled by the war in Ukraine and disrupted grain and fertiliser supply. How does Gonzalo see the role of CrowdFarming in this context? "The food crisis is exposing our dependence," he says. "In my view, a healthy European society takes care of its own food and should be creating good jobs not only in IT and banking, but also in food production." This is difficult at the moment because Europe has an aging farming population. "Globalisation", Gonzalo says, “has been shot to pieces and has led us to import food from countries where working conditions are poor. In the global system, production takes place where it is cheapest, with major environmental and social consequences. I'm not saying we shouldn't import anything, but we have to maintain our ecological and social values."
He estimates that, with an expansion of the range, the adoption concept of CrowdFarming could provide about half the crops now grown in Europe. He adds: "The challenge is to make the link between farmers and consumers large scale to find out what the real demand is and therefore what needs to be grown." Today, in addition to Spain, the platform's major markets are in Germany (where the brothers studied), France, Austria and the Netherlands. Farmers on the platform are mainly from southern Europe, but there are some farmers from Bulgaria and Estonia. And for those larger markets, it becomes more attractive for farmers there to switch to organic farming on a large scale – an example of the impact CrowdFarming can have on the entire food system.
Every step is considered carefully. Gonzalo: "We have a substantial waiting list of farmers who want to join. It is the job of our farmer hunters to engage with them first. Some farmers are still in transition to organic. And organic does not automatically mean everything is fine. They need further training and preparation before they can apply to our platform."