June 26, 2019
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It just got easier for Mainers to get food from local farmers

PORTLAND, Maine — David Stone sees a disconnect: If local food is all the rage, why is it such a small share of what we eat?

Since resigning as CEO of CashStar, the digital gift card company he co-founded in 2013, he said he has done some soul-searching. He has spent about three years on the local food question and has his answer.

“I wanted to do something with a little more relevance in Maine in particular,” Stone said in a telephone interview.

Stone’s four-person startup, Forager1 LLC, launched this week in Maine and New York after gathering about $1 million in investment to complete a pilot program connecting independent markets or cooperatives with the small farmers who supply them.

Stone’s company aims to improve transactions between small farmers and grocery stores or cooperatives, mostly by taking manual paperwork out of the equation.

“In Maine, about 60 percent [of farmers] send emails to their buyers twice a week,” Stone said. “Another 20 or 25 percent are calling, and then there’s a smaller percent that’s stopping by or doing something else.”

About a year ago, email was the communication method of choice for buyers at the Portland Food Co-op, according to general manager John Crane.

The co-op deals with about 250 different food producers, including about 30 to 40 vegetable farmers. Crane and a team of buyers now communicate with some farmers through Forager’s applications.

“For all of us who have been involved in local foods, this is just the type of thing that we’ve been waiting for,” Crane said in a telephone interview.

The Portland co-op was one of the first to agree to Forager’s pilot program. Crane said it has saved time and increased purchasing with some farms.

“You get into a certain routine with folks,” Crane said. “We don’t always know that they have a lot of other products, and with this we see their entire availability list.”

Forager’s software standardizes communications between buyers and farmers. Buyers can place orders, confirm shipments when they arrive and make digital payments to their suppliers.

Buyers such as Crane are Forager’s customers, paying a percentage fee on what they buy through the platform.

Stone said Forager saves buyers about 6 percent to 10 percent by making the process more efficient and reducing the error rate in handling paper transactions by hand.

Farmers don’t pay a fee to take part. Stone said the company may add other paid features for farmers later, but the basic service will remain free for them.

Stone said that’s key to expanding the service, which also depends on participation from farmers.

Crane said the Portland Co-op’s suppliers like the application, “especially our younger farmers.”

“They love the fact that they can be out in their fields, open their phone to see an order and pack and ship it immediately,” Crane said. “It’s such a dramatic improvement over how we do things previously. I don’t know if there are many farmers who at the end of the day like to go inside and sit at a computer and do all that stuff.”

Forager’s launch focuses on Maine and New York, where Stone said there’s a concentration of independent grocers and cooperatives. The potential to bring on larger grocery stores would come later, if at all, Stone said.

“We’re picking markets with a big food co-op or a large independent grocer,” Stone said. “They can help us bring the farmers on board.”

Populations in Maine and New York also have strong potential to feed themselves with high shares of locally sourced food, too.

A 2015 study from the University of California found up to 90 percent of Americans could live off food grown within 100 miles of their homes. Southern New England had some of the lowest potential for such local sustenance, but Maine fared better.

Stone’s company is using estimates that about 3 percent of food nationwide is locally sourced. The number is about double that in Maine, at about 6 percent, he said.

While there are other barriers to growing more food locally — land costs, processing capacity, cold storage and more — Stone is banking on simple technological advances giving a boost to what’s already coming out of the ground.

“There’s so much nascent demand in the state for local food,” Stone said. “We could be doing so much more than we’re doing.”

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