Gabriel and Gonzalo Úrculo began CrowdFarming as a revolution in the business of their orange plantation in Valencia, Spain. What began as a way of reaching their customers directly, essentially crowdfunding their farm, has grown into an international collection of farmers and producers, all seeking a deeper connection with the land and with the people who consume their harvests.
Locavore spoke to Lena Manz and co-founder Gonzalo Úrculo about their innovative ‘adoption’ system, the benefits of direct farmer-to-consumer contact, and weaving the rhythms of the farming year together with those of the impatient internet.
What is CrowdFarming, and how did all begin?
CrowdFarming is a new direct and transparent food-supply chain, an agri-social revolution waged by young producers in the orange fields of Valencia. It is not a typical start-up, invented in someone’s garage.
CrowdFarming was created on the orange fields of Naranjas del Carmen by the brothers Gabriel and Gonzalo Úrculo, who were both greatly disappointed in the lack of transparency from traditional food supply chains and the low prices farmers were receiving for their harvest. Fed up with this model, and on the verge of throwing in the towel, they decided to create their own food supply chain, putting on the table the only two players necessary to bring this chain into existence: the producer and the consumer. They offered the first orange trees for adoption in their fields at the end of 2015.
Thanks to the adoption of these trees they have achieved a more transparent, direct, and emotional connection with those consuming their harvest. Their farm has become the orchard of those persons whose adopted orange trees are growing on the fields. These people know where their food comes from, how and by whom it has been cultivated, when it has been harvested, and what has happened during the harvest season. Other farmers have become interested in this new approach. Hence, Gabriel and Gonzalo had to consider two options: on the one hand, buying additional fields and grow with Naranjas del Carmen or, on the other hand, integrating with other producers and helping them to develop CrowdFarming with their respective products.
Furthermore, it is important to share this new model and cultivation philosophy with other farmers. This will eventually lead to creating more consumer awareness and the prevention of food waste, changing CrowdFarming from being a local success into a real socio-agricultural revolution, worldwide. With this goal in mind, our website – where other producers can offer their plants and animals for adoption – was launched in December 2017.
You talk about ‘adopting productive units’, and of your customers being CrowdFarmers themselves. How exactly does your system work?
There are four main elements to our system:
The Farmer: this is the farmer, beekeeper, livestock breeder, herder, or fisher that cultivates or produces a product. They are the people or group of people that stand at the very beginning of the food supply chain. In general, they are good and honest people that get up early in the morning. The Farmer gives the final price, and the web page adds up selling costs and logistics costs. CrowdFarming makes a living by designing and implementing efficient logistics.
CrowdFarmer: this replaces the word “consumer”. The CrowdFarmer within the supply chain of CrowdFarming is the person for whom the Farmer can develop his activity and produce, guaranteeing a fair price. In this new chain a direct link is created between the one who produces and the one who receives the food. This link can be translated into mutual commitment – the Farmer produces knowing that someone waits for his harvest, and the CrowdFarmer enjoys the product knowing where it comes from, by whom it was produced, and how it was produced.
Productive Unit: this is what you adopt from the Farmer. It may be a tree, an animal, or a part of a garden food is grown. There are productive units that can be adopted individually (you adopt the entire productive unit), and other units where you adopt only a part (you share this productive unit with other CrowdFarmers).
Master Box: this is the box (or boxes) with products you receive from the Farmer to the address you indicated at the moment you adopted. In CrowdFarming, all Farmers offer a guarantee of reimbursing the money of the adoption if for any reason they cannot send you the product.
It is the farmer who sets the final price, taking into account the real production costs. Later, CrowdFarming is in charge of the logistics and the web adds the logistical costs to the price the Farmer sets. They will get in the end a fair price they can make a living from.
What products do you currently offer?
At the moment you can adopt orange trees, clementine trees, olive trees, and almond trees, as well as cocoa and coffee plants, apricot trees, and pomegranate trees. We also have aloe vera plants, cows, rice fields, Merino sheep, and more.
From these you could receive freshly picked oranges or clementines directly from the tree, freshly pressed olive oil, organic whole or ground almonds, chocolate bars, roasted coffee beans. We can send you rice, sheep’s cheese, balsamic vinegar PGI Modena – the list of superb produce goes on.
What has been your most popular product?
We are currently in the middle of the orange season and CrowdFarming was born on the orange fields of Naranjas del Carmen. Citrus farmers are among the most popular ones.
What has been the reaction so far, both from customers and the farming industry?
The farmers working together with us are happy to be able to plan their harvest, to receive a fair price, and get to know the people who will consume their products at the end and receive their direct feedback. This helps them to improve, and is a constant motivation to do their work as well as possible.
Llum, an orange farmer from Valencia, says for instance “We don’t want to cultivate many oranges, but good ones. With CrowdFarming we believe that we can show the consumer the love and affection we put into our work. Every single orange we cultivate causes sleepless nights: Will it freeze? Will the heavy winds blow it to the ground? For this reason, we want people who enjoy our fruits to cherish all the hard work that’s behind cultivating them.”
On a daily basis we receive feedback from the CrowdFarmers. They are happy to be able to get to know the person producing the food they consume, and to receive news about what is going on throughout the year. Some are interested in visiting the Farmer and their tree in person. Moreover, they also share their criticism, ask questions, and make proposals. All this feedback helps the Farmers and also the team of CrowdFarming to progress.
Who are your farmers?
At the beginning, the farmers who joined us where mostly known to either Gonzalo, Gabriel or one of their team members. However, since CrowdFarming was launched, more and more farmers contact us from all over the world with different kinds of products and stories to tell.
You can see the current active projects and the respective Farmers on our website. Here are the stories of three of them.
The pomegranate project belongs to Ana Belén Perez, agricultural engineer of Naranjas del Carmen. She belongs to the Naranjas del Carmen family for years, and saw how the first new CrowdFarming tree was planted on the fields of Naranjas del Carmen in 2015. In the past years she was experiencing what it means to cultivate and pick directly those consuming the oranges at the end. She welcomed orange tree owners on the farm of Naranjas del Carmen who wanted to visit their tree etc. That’s why she decided to join CrowdFarming with her pomegranate trees in 2018. She says “The “Huerto de Ana” – Ana’s Orchard – is a dream come true. I studied agricultural sciences because the fields and agriculture have been my passion since I was a little girl. Studying, working and living for something you love means being lucky. Luck that was pursued with endeavour, of course. I want to develop the CrowdFarming model in my garden because it creates a direct and transparent connection with the people, who consume the products we cultivate. It allows me to send the fruits just when they are ripe enough.”
Rolando Bueno – or “Serge” – is a former sergeant of the Philippine Marines. After his retirement he started to dedicate himself to cultivating cocoa. Serge and Auro (the chocolate manufacturer) are part of a movement known as “from arms to farms” teaching retired marines how to cultivate criollo cocoa. In the past, the cocoa cultivation did not receive a lot of attention from the Philippine community but interest has been slowly growing and it now represents a key economic activity for the region.
Then there is Paco Moya of Almendras Chirlata. Together with his wife Olga he owned a textile workshop in Barcelona, but they had to close due to the economic crisis. That’s when they decided to reinvent themselves and move to Granada to live on their almond farm and grow organic almonds. They joined CrowdFarming in 2017.
In what country are your farmers situated?
At the moment, fourteen Farmers offer their products on our website. They come from Spain, France, Italy, the Philippines, and Colombia. However, we want CrowdFarming to be a global movement and as such our dream is to work together with many more farmers coming from different countries all over the world.
Has climate change affected any of your farmers?
One of our Farmers was heavily affected by rainfalls at the end of 2018; the team of Bardomus and the Farmer Manuel Belles. Normally, the olive harvest takes place in October. However, Spain suffered in October and November from heavy rainfalls. Although water is much needed, the quantity of water coming down was too much at once in some regions, among them Castellón where the olive farm of Bardomus is located.
Freshly dug holes for the new CrowdFarming trees to be planted had gone, the paths on the fields to reach the trees and harvest the olives had been literally washed, away and it was unclear whether the collection of the olives – which luckily were not affected – could continue. After some weeks they had managed to repair the major damages to continue with the harvest, although with more than one month of delay. The delay in the harvest led to a delay of the olive oil production and the shipment to those who had adopted an olive tree. They still continue to recover the farm from the damages suffered.
How does sustainability inform your business as a whole?
We encourage our Farmers to think more about ethical methods respecting the environment, and we give them the assurance that there is a team of people to support them in their efforts. We encourage them not to use plastic for packaging, and to hire labour and pay them decent wages. However, we do not make an official audit of these practices yet. There are some badges that our Farmers can achieve, which are visible on their respective project page.
Renewable Energy: this Farmer has invested in installing equipments for producing and using renewable energy, which is then employed in their production activity. CrowdFarming seeks a way of production which makes an optimal use of natural resources available in the surrounding area.
Pesticide-free: this Farmer assures that they do not apply any pesticide treatments. In order to control the pests, traps and/or other natural means can be used. This Farmer prefers their product to be of good quality from within rather than having the most beautiful appearance.
Herbicide-free: this Farmer does not apply any herbicides to the soil. To regulate the growth of weeds, mechanical means are used, which enable plants attracting insects to sustain the local wildlife balance.
Residue-free: the harvest of the Farmer has been analysed, and the result certifies that it is free from residues. You can download the Farmer’s harvest certificate.
Organic: this Farmer meets the European regulation for organic production. Organic production follows nature’s systems and cycles. Production processes and land usage must ensure environmental sustainability without making use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Plastic-free: the box you will receive with the products of this Farmer is plastic-free. The CrowdFarming team encourages the Farmers to use recycled and biodegradable materials to send their products. With CrowdFarming, we not only prevent food waste but also over-packaging of products with plastic materials.
Are all your farms certified organic?
Even though one of our goals is to spread the idea of organic cultivation, not all of the Farmers produce organically yet. There are a couple that are in transition between conventional and organic farming, and it takes time for the fields to recover from previous agricultural practices.
Some small farms would like to convert to organic cultivation but are afraid of losing production capacity and of high bureaucratic costs of switching to organic cultivation. Thanks to CrowdFarming, they are confident to make the change, because they can be sure that their effort will be rewarded. For this reason, we don’t want to close the doors to Farmers who don’t have the organic seal. The majority of our Farmers acknowledge the importance of ecological cultivation and have pledged to work towards it and offer it in the next season.
What plans do you have for the future?
Our dream is to create a food supply chain that becomes more transparent over time, and that increasingly connects farmers and consumers. The consumers have to be actively integrated in the cultivation process of the products they buy. This is a constant challenge as we try to intertwine two elements that couldn’t be more different: the internet (fast and without patience) and agriculture (having its own rhythm and requiring patience from those harvesting and those consuming).
Our dream is to get to know farmers from all over the world and turn CrowdFarming into a global movement.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
The the team standing behind CrowdFarming is very diverse, having different interests, coming from different cultural backgrounds. However, we share our love for agriculture and logistics. The professional experience Gabriel and Gonzalo gained as farmers at Naranjas del Carmen, and the direct contact with those who have planted trees with them, made them and also us, their team, realise that there is an urgent need for change in the current food supply chain.
Sign up to Locavore’s Newsletter here.
To subscribe to Locavore, or buy single issues, visit our shop.