If the nightmare-ish appearance of Soylent in the real world (as opposed to in dystopian cannibal-populated literature) terrified you into thinking Silicon Valley had declared a war on food, please rest assured—our tech overlords have not yet given up on the fuel of the humble peasant (that’s us). In fact, several West Coast dudes are actually trying to make it easier for you to get access to fresh food. One such specimen is Benzi Ronen, who just expanded his company Farmigo into an attractive new office space in Gowanus.
Farmigo has ostensibly declared a war not on food itself, but on “the food system”—that terrifying American monolith that brings you flawless tomatoes that never die, and 3lb rotisserie chickens for $4.99 (Costco, I’m looking at you). Particularly, Ronen hopes that Farmigo (with its offices on both the West and East coasts, and technical team based in Tel Aviv) will provide a practical alternative to supermarkets, just one facet of what he sees as a crisis-ridden food industry .
Ronen spent over a decade working in tech, before deciding in 2009 to start a software CSA—providing local farmers with technology needed to create sustainable businesses. In 2011, that mission expanded to include a technological means of enabling communities to support local farmers. The result bills itself as “an online farmers market,” retaining part of the community-focused, interactional element of the analog market model while increasing efficiency. The name Farmigo is a portmanteau of “Farm” and “amigo.”
The Farmigo model works by herding potential consumers into “buying groups.” These groups are then connected to local farmers, fishmongers, creameries, butchers, and given “full flexibility” regarding what they purchase. A website is established for each community, which is fully customizable (groups can choose to be kosher, for instance). The food is brought in to local warehouses, then organized into individual orders which are pushed out to the buying groups—all the members of which go to collect their packages from the same neighborhood drop-off point (a school, say, or a community hall).
Using Farmigo is, Ronen claims, practically and financially advantageous for both producers and consumers. Although at farmers markets, the farmers are able to keep all of the money they earn, they also need to arrange transportation and estimate how much produce they will sell. Farmigo eliminates these concerns, while also maintaining some of the hallmarks of an offline transaction: the company organizes for consumer groups to visit farms, facilitating a producer-consumer relationship, and they commit to full transparency by allowing consumers to see exactly where each purchased item comes from.
Meanwhile, for consumers, the group-buying element enables a 20% discount for analagous items one might find in Whole Foods. There are no joining fees or minimums. Ronen compares the concept to the coop model, minus the volunteering aspect—or a greenmarket, minus the hassle. “I’m in favor of farmers markets, we need them, but most people don’t make it to the market,” he says. “It becomes an event, not a real alternative.” By contrast, he hopes Farmigo’s efficiency and practicality will make it a viable substitute for supermarket shopping. “The coop only works because you have ‘Park Slope,’ right?” he says. “This is a very lightweight way of delivering a similar model…you essentially have many, many coops that are hyper-local.”
In New York, Farmigo’s focus area forms what Ronen calls “a bagel around Manhattan.” While for central city dwellers, supermarket food delivery is cost-efficient, for those in the “bagel,” it becomes more expensive. There are drop warehouses currently in Red Hook and Astoria, receiving produce mostly from upstate New York.
Building new buying communities is, says Ronen, the most challenging aspect of the business model. “How do you mobilize a grassroots source?” he asked himself. The answer is a campaign modeled on Obama’s successful 2008 run for President: with local parties, referrals, word-of-mouth. One of the main organizers on that Obama campaign is in fact part of the Farmigo team. “This is not a trivial model to figure out. It hasn’t been done before,” says Ronen. But now, “we’re at a point where we feel like we’ve got it, and now it’s time to start scaling it.”
Hence the move to the headquarters in Gowanus, complete with treehouse elements, a large conference area, and a spacious kitchen. When we went, for the celebration marking the opening of the office, women in aprons were hard at work in the kitchen, slicing into watermelons, layering mozzarella and tomato, and beet-curing deviled eggs—all the produce for this feast having come from Farmigo farms. The opening also coincided with the first of a series of monthly “Food Hackers” meetups: Moth-style events designed to facilitate story-telling and social networking—taking a page from Silicon Valley’s playbook.
The Food Hackers series (the first of which included speakers from Brooklyn Winery, Plated, and Haven’s Kitchen) evinces Ronen’s broader goals. “We want New York to become the hub for food and technology,” he says, “and Gowanus, specifically.” The neighborhood already plays host to Kitchensurfing (a website that allows you to invite a chef into your home kitchen), and the first Whole Foods in the borough (complete with rooftop farm run by Gotham Greens), as well as the imminent Ample Hills headquarters.
The salsa served last Thursday (composed of farm-fresh corn and tomatoes) was delicious enough to convince me that Farmigo is able to deliver the goods, but there’s an argument to be made that this tech-heavy model does little to redress one of the major issues in the food system: the lack of access that less well-off Americans have to fresh nutrient-rich food. Sure, if you’re tech-savvy and have the means but not the energy to go to Whole Foods, then Farmigo provides an easy and slightly cheaper alternative—but Ronen is the first to admit that “it’s still more expensive than conventional food.”
He hopes that once the company gets established among “highly passionate people” (presumably with the dollars to back up that passion), it might spread. They are, he adds hopefully, delivering now in Harlem. Unfortunately, given that Whole Foods has confirmed a new store in that neighborhood, it doesn’t have quite the down-at-heel connotations to which Ronen might be alluding.
Regardless, on a more basic level, the reliance on “conscious consumerism” to counterbalance problems created in the first place by capitalism is arguably self-defeating. As L.V. Anderson wrote recently in a Dissent article entitled “Limits of the Locavore,” “a food movement that sees the marketplace as an instrument of change will always be subject to the exigencies of the marketplace.” The current ‘alternative’ food system, which Farmigo is striving to be a part of, is—Anderson argues—fundamentally elitist, conservative, and ineffective in terms of creating systemic change.
But if you’re less interested in debating all the ways in which federal agricultural policy sucks than you are in easily acquiring delicious produce that you might otherwise have to make the trek to Whole Foods for (and you don’t mind forking over $8.75 for a quart of luscious cherries), then Farmigo is most likely right up your alley. Hey, you might make a farmer’s day. And besides—that salsa was like sweet, sweet summer in my mouth.