Krystine McInnes was a developer passionate about sustainable building methods. She liked the idea of edible landscaping. She started to think about the best delivery systems for these ideas. An urban farm started looking like a good way to combine them in a package that had a low energy impact and which benefited the world.
What if starting a micro-farm in an urban location were easier? A lot easier?
One day while thinking about this, Krystine went by a farm that was for sale just to have a look around. She instantly realized that it was the right place to be. She has pointed her future at farming.
The journey has been incredibly hard. She discovered that there was no “farmer instruction manual.” Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, and since she does not come from a farming family, she had to hunt for information on her own. Resources and data were hard to discover. Most small organic farmers, she learned, lost money in the first year. If they survived into their second year, it was because they had navigated a learning curve steep as a hockey stick.
With Grown Here Farms she has resolved to create a business model and an example for other micro-farms. She is building a digital dashboard for farmers to track prices, reporting, and worker wages. She has a vision for a replicable business model that can lead to the success of the small farmer.
In our conversation, we get into how a successful organic farm must turn away from being a mere commodity and toward a beloved brand. We discuss Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and what it means for the small farmer and you.
- The number of small farms is shrinking while the farmer population is aging. Who will grow our food?
- We know amazingly little about the farm-to-table supply chain, and large food producers and distributors would like to keep us in the dark.
- Your fresh fruit and vegetables travel an average of 1500 miles to get to you.
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Lee: It’s “The Future of Food,” I’m Lee Schneider.
Krystine: So when you go to the store and you buy, you know, an apple from your local farmer, or farmers’ market, the person that grew that food cared very deeply about the quality of that food, and how that food got to you, and that there’s a heartbeat behind it.
Lee: Krystine McInnes was a developer who became obsessed with integrating green tech into her buildings. She was fascinated by its sustainability. She liked the idea of edible landscaping. She had a life-changing improvement in her health when she started eating organic food, so she became an organic farmer. Farming is not in her family, she had no experience, but one day she went to a farm property just to have a look around.
Krystine: I went in to view this property, originally it was just to take a look at it, and well, as soon as I walked on the farm, I knew this is the right place to be.
Lee: When I was researching this, I started to get a little jealous. I started thinking, “You know, farming, that could be it. That could be good.” But then I’m wondering, “Is it really that easy?” And probably not. So I wanted to ask you what has surprised you about all of this and farming in particular?
Krystine: Ah, so much. The learning curve is like a hockey stick. Not having come from a background in farming, so I’ve really walked into the saying quite blind.
Lee: In short order, Christine discovered that there was no farming instruction manual, you learn by making mistakes.
Krystine: For a new farmer who’s passionate about organics to come into this market, how do they do it without almost burying themselves? Because you have to learn everything the hard way which means you make a ton of mistakes, you lose a bunch of money, you almost lose your shirts completely, and then you kind of hopefully figure it out course correct, and create a sustainable model moving forward, there really wasn’t any sort of framework that we saw.
Lee: Her sustainable model was a micro-farm. In her vision, micro-farms would reduce the distance food traveled from farm to table and help more people know their farmer. Micro-farms might resolve the problem of food deserts, those places in Canada and the U.S. where it is difficult to get fresh food. In a food desert, your tomato might be a passenger in a truck and make a journey of 1,000 miles. If it were easier, she reasoned, to start a small farm, more people would take it up and more customers would get local fresh food.
Krystine: You know, when a farmer has a successful model to work, or when a farmer isn’t up to 3:00 a.m. trying to figure out how to market their apples because they’re farming and marketing and bookkeeping and selling and, you know, they’re doing everything. And so when we could kind of address lot of those foundational pieces with a structure that makes sense, and works, and a brand that the consumer recognizes. And that brand has brand value, and it stands for something, and there’s integrity around it, then we could really use this model to support that heartbeat to heartbeat connection of “Know your farmer, know your food,” and knowing where your food comes from, and who produced it, and all the details about that supply chain, because you’re now in a relationship end-to-end.
So that could be anything from an at-risk community like seniors, as an example. So bringing that model into a seniors housing community where they’re not getting access to nutritious or fresh foods, to northern communities, to our first nations communities, to areas even in the third world where access to fresh food is not readily available.
Lee: You’re coming at this from a fresh perspective, and you have a lot of new ideas, and you’re seeing things really differently than the established farming community. Are you getting pushback there? Are people saying, “Hey, you know, the new kid’s on the block?”
Krystine: Yeah, 100%. Yeah, we’ve had nothing but… And from the oddest of places, so a lot of that pushback has come from those established, industry-veteran from, you know, the areas in finance to government, like it’s like, “Whoa. What do you mean you’re doing something this different?” And that has been really difficult for us to navigate because we can’t really go the traditional routes for, say, financing or, you know, support. We have to kind of think like a scrappy startup. We think of ourselves more like a Silicon Valley tech company than, say, an established industry farm.
We have to start innovating.
The population of new farmers coming into the industry is declining rapidly. Seventy percent of the farmers are over the age of 65. Those are very scary statistics in this industry, and so we have to, as an industry, support youth, support new entrants coming in.
// Krystine McInnes
Lee: Though farming might seem like an old, unchanging profession, there is an urgency to Krystine’s mission. The number of small farms in North America is declining. The average age of a farmer is going up.
Krystine: We have to start innovating. The population of new farmers coming into the industry is declining rapidly. Seventy percent of the farmers are over the age of 65. Those are very scary statistics in this industry, and so we have to, as an industry, support youth, support new entrants coming in. The only way to do that is with a sound economic model that makes sense where we can help to hedge that risk for those new entrants.
Also too, you know, we have this generation of farmers that are retiring farmers, and one of the challenges that we see definitely…we’re very puritan organic farmers, and a lot of that generation was educated by the chemical companies. They bought the story that those chemical companies sold them about, you know, how to take care of their crops. They employed all sorts of specialists that went around and told these farmers, “Well, if you have a problem with your leaks, then just spray them with this, and if you have a problem with this, then just spray them with that.” And so there’s this whole generation of farmers that, you know, have been educated by the very companies that have a vested interest in the sale of those chemicals to those farmers. And that education is kind of deep-rooted. And so you now have this younger generation that’s, you know, demanding transparency in the supply chain, demanding that their food be, you know, organic non-GMO, and there is a divergence as well with that generational knowledge where those newer farmers don’t wanna know those ways of doing things, those are not best practices anymore. And so we have this kind of education gap as well coming out of that generation and into this kind of younger generation that needs to be bridged.
Lee: One larger goal of yours is to change what we think of as a commodity farmed food into a brand, from commodity to brand, and a brand that people can recognize and identify with. I know very little about the seed-to-sale aspect of industrial farming. I’ve been reading that the information is hidden from me pretty much. If I wanted to find out how industrially produced food got to my grocery store, would I be able to do it? And if so, how would I do it?
Krystine: Yeah. So I call this kind of the dark underbelly of organics or the dark underbelly of farming. They couldn’t operate these giant conglomerates if they didn’t have supply chain management. For the most part, they don’t want you to know that. They know exactly what’s in that product and where that stuff came from, but giving that information to the consumer is a whole other ballgame. And if you imagine, I mean, if you really knew what was in that product and where that product came from, you might never purchase that product again.
And so you’re absolutely right, for the most part, that information is hidden. It is difficult, and part of what we know, you know, with the changing of demographics as we’re kind of moving out of this baby boomer generation and into this millennial-driven generation there’s such a bigger focus on, “Where does my food come from? What’s in my food?” And because there’s this consumer-driven trend that’s driving that demand, what we feel is, — there are opportunities for integrity-driven brands to really be prosperous, to really, you know, get a foothold in markets where they would normally be whitewashed by big conglomerates, because people do wanna know, “What’s in my food and where did it come from?”
But also on the technology side, to create that experience for the consumer, which is part of what we’ve been doing with our application as well, which is not just integrating supply chain management and transparency on the management side being on our side but actually connecting the consumer with that. So they could go to the store buy our “Grown Here Farms” product and there’s a code or a scanner, or whatever, a number on it that they enter into our website, or our widget, or our application, and it would tell them exactly where that food came from, exactly what’s in it, who made it, when it was made, information about that varietal. Kind of creating a virtual connection of that heartbeat to heartbeat between the farmer and the consumer. Again, you know bridging that gap of “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food,” and allowing them to kind of create that connection again.
Lee: There would actually be a scannable thing that would tell me where that apple came from?
Krystine: Yeah, yeah. And we’re just working right now on, like, exactly what… Like, we’ve been talking a lot about just doing it through our lot number system, so you can go on our website and just put in, you know, “Lot 54,” and it would pull up exactly all the information about where that product came from, who grew it.
Lee: So that would be integrity-driven branding in action because you would know a lot about what you were buying, right?
Krystine: Absolutely. And personally, for me, and this is where that idea of turning a commodity into a brand comes from is, you know, when you go to the store, and you buy a carrot, and it says “organic,” where…what country did that come from? Are their organic standards actually regulated? You know a lot of these different countries have… There’s a lot of bribery going on. There’s a lot of, you know, things that are happening on the backend without regulation that are not at the standard that we would perhaps hold ourselves in Canada or the U.S.
That product has also been transported through goodness knows how many layers of trucks and air conditioners and coolers, and, you know, who knows how long it took to get here or what it was in contact with along that supply chain. So not having that transparency means you might be buying that carrot and it says, “organic” but it could be completely contaminated, you have no idea. It could have come from a country where they just stamped it “organic” and paid somebody off, then who is the wiser?
Not having that transparency means you might be buying that carrot and it says, “organic” but it could be completely contaminated, you have no idea. It could have come from a country where they just stamped it “organic” and paid somebody off, then who is the wiser?
// Krystine McInnes
Lee: We really know so little about the supply chain, and it seems like, in many cases, we’re deliberately kept in the dark because the information would not be a lot of fun to know about.
Krystine: This is one of the industries where the consumer really has the power. It’s the people that have the power to drive those buy decisions at the retail level. The consumer is the most powerful voice in this conversation. If they demand it, then those retailers will supply it. But right now, we’re kind of in this…exactly this gray area where there has been a lot of brands out there that said, you know, “Yeah, you can trust us. You can trust us. We’re this major brand and we have great marketing.” And the public are starting to realize, you know, “Hey, we shouldn’t believe everything that these brands sell us because they’ve got this big marketing budget and they can tell us whatever they want.” Is it true? Is there integrity around that? And as the consumer starts to ask more questions and demand more transparency in that supply chain, the retailers, and the companies will have no choice but to change their behavior.
Lee: Back in our parents’ day, it used to be that the bigger a food brand was, the more we trusted it. That level of trust is hard to resurrect now because we have access to more information about the companies that feed us. Especially among millennials, trust in a large corporation is no longer the default position. Now, let’s consider Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Krystine argues that Amazon, a bottom-line-driven company responsible only to its shareholders, now has an important responsibility to us about our food.
Krystine: You know, our concerns are definitely around … that Amazon is a tech company, you know. Jeff Bezos is well known for his focus on efficiencies and when you when you start looking at an industry like farming in that way, where, you know, let’s be really real. It’s a publicly traded company, their bottom line is shareholder return. That’s what a publicly traded company is. They, by law, are required to put shareholder return above everything else in the decision-making process. So who’s getting pinched here? Isn’t the shareholder.
Who’s getting pinched? It is gonna be the guy at the bottom of that chain, who’s Joe the farmer, who doesn’t have a voice, who probably doesn’t have the marketing savvy and the this and the that, who just really loves growing whatever it is he’s growing and he’s traditionally been selling that product to a company like Whole Foods. And those are the people at the bottom of that chain that are gonna get pinched when we start talking about things, you know, in the way of the price competitiveness and, you know, all that kind of corporate lingo, you know, who suffers as the farmers.
These types of acquisitions, you know, when you’re that big of a conglomerate and you’re controlling that much of an industry, one stroke of a pen could wipe out hundreds of smaller organic farms in a heartbeat. I mean, because they won’t be able to compete on price point and they’re just gonna get into a race to the bottom with not a lot of other options.
Lee: How can consumers demand some transparency, maybe even at the grocery level, or where do they start, and how do they start?
Krystine: Yeah, you know, it really does come down to the consumer, because…and we have seen this in the industry, absolutely. Farmers are really afraid to have these conversations because their livelihood depends on those companies buying that product. If they step forward and say the truth about the way the industry works, and how they get pitted against cheap import alternatives, and who’s driving the price point down, and what that effect is on them as farmers, they could potentially lose their livelihoods, and so most farmers won’t do that, and…well, for good reason. And so, you know, you do have organizations and things like that.
But really at the end of the day, I think that, you know, the advocacy groups that are out there are great and they kind of fit a certain niche, but who is really driving that conversation is the consumer. The consumer has to continue to demand transparency in their supply chain. They need to continue demand local product be on those shelves and asking lots of questions. Because if they continue to try to ask those questions of those at the retail level, that conversation makes its way up the chain. When those buyers are making those buy decisions, you know, they go back to their head office and say, “Hey, the people are asking. They want local. They want local. They’re wondering why we don’t have local.”
And so it really is the consumer in the end that is gonna have to take the responsibility to educate themselves and to empower themselves around…you know, they really do. This is the one area where their voice really does count.
Lee: Krystine. Thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.
Krystine: Thank you so much for having me, Lee. Appreciate it.
Lee: This has been The Future of Food. Get show notes and more at futurefood.fm. We post transcripts of all shows, articles that build on what we talk about in the show, and you can subscribe to the mailing list, and never miss a podcast. That’s futurefood.fm. I’m Lee Schneider.