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Sonoma County Farm Uses Social Media to Cut Food Waste and Increase Profits

by on May 11, 2013

CropMobster – Helping STOMP OUT hunger.

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Rachel Dornhelm/KQED

Reported by: Rachel Dornhelm

Agriculture may be one of the biggest economic drivers in California, but the latest farm census from the USDA found that, among the state’s small farms, more than half do not turn a profit.

One family farm in Sonoma County is using social media to try to change that and reduce food waste at the same time.

That farm is Bloomfield Farms in Petaluma. On a recent Sunday evening, after employees had returned from a weekend selling at Bay Area farmers markets, general manager Nick Papadopoulos headed over to one of the barns. He walked into the cooler only to find two pallets of produce that had come back unsold.

Papadopoulos headed back to his shipping container-turned-office, opened up his laptop and updated the farm’s Facebook status.

“I’m going to put breaking news,” he narrated as he typed. “Crop mob. Two pallets, Bloomfield Farm veggies, $150 per pallet.”

This was his third try at recruiting what he dubbed “crop mobsters.” The deal was open to anyone. The first time, the veggies were snapped up by a block of Santa Rosa neighbors. The next week, a group of friends went in on it.

This time, by Monday morning farmer Mike Collins was helping Berry Smith Salinas load organic veggies and herbs into her truck. Salinas lives in nearby Sebastopol and owns a local meat production business.

Rachel Dornhelm/KQED

“This morning I woke up to all these Facebook messages and people cross-posting that there was a load of produce that hadn’t been picked up,” Salinas said.

So she signed on. As she tied the bounty down under a tarp, Salinas got a stream of messages from friends planning to gather at her commercial kitchen that night to claim their portions.

She scrolled through them, reading aloud.

“There’s a lot of ‘I’m in’s,’ ‘Hold as much cabbage for me as you can.’ ‘Taters.’,” said Salinas.

The portions that friends weren’t chipping in for would be donated to a local hunger relief organization.

This whole experiment in Macrobiotics meets Microprocessors got off the ground because Papadopoulos took a break from his job as a business consultant and went to work at his father-in-law’s farm. He was struck by the waste problem when — on short notice and with limited time — he couldn’t find a place to donate 32 cases of organic broccoli. They ended up in the compost bin and chicken coop.

“I don’t believe we should let [the overage] go to waste,” said Papadopoulos. “I believe we should share it, donate it, whatever it takes. And if possible, as farmers, we would like to recover a small portion of our costs.”

After his success with the Facebook posts, Papadopoulos recruited a local Web team to build the website cropmobster.com. He said CropMobster is meant to be a hub for people involved with food production or hunger relief, or just individuals, to access local food.

In the six weeks the site has been operating, nonprofits, restaurants and individuals have swooped up more than 11,000 pounds of food, including 100 heads of discounted organic lettuce from Twin Palms Ranch in Santa Rosa, owned by Louis and Karen McKenzie.

“All this heat has pushed a lot of our plants way ahead of schedule,” Louis McKenzie said. “So we needed to move a lot of heads of lettuce really quick.

He had expected to harvest those greens a month later when retail operations started. Besides connecting him with the restaurant that bought the lettuce, he said, CropMobster also introduced him to many other potential customers. At his 5-acre farm, every penny counts, said McKenzie, who used to be a general contractor making $100 an hour.

“I don’t know how many days of work it took to a get a box of 100 heads of lettuce out for $100,” he said. “It’s a lot of work.”

His wife, Karen McKenzie, added, “But we never go hungry.”

So that others don’t either, they’ve also posted food donations on cropmobster.com

Dana Gunders researches food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said a recent study found that in some cases 30 percent of fresh food doesn’t make it off farms. CropMobster addresses one of the main problems with waste, she said.

“And that is that it’s often spontaneous, it’s inconsistent, and it’s hard for anyone to really build a business of this,” Gunders said. “So the way the technology can enable this more organic solution is really powerful.”

Bloomfield Farms’ Nick Papodopoulos said it hasn’t been without challenges. There are regulations around agriculture and he’s heard from at least one regular customer questioning why they are paying higher prices. But he said gleaning food from farms is a centuries-old tradition — and it’s time to do it with the latest tools available.

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