Internet start-up helps local farms share their harvest

The Google App Engine, a hosting and development platform, underlies two-year-old Farmigo's Web applications for community supported agriculture.

A couple of weeks ago, I was pitched by Google, which wanted to sell me (if you will) on the inherent environmental and operational benefits of the company's Google App Engine. A primer: Google App Engine is a Web service that lets organizations (business OR non-profits) create applications and Web services of their own. It is for start-ups or entrepreneurs who might not have the wherewithal, or desire, to invest in server hardware, hosting platforms and software development tools for an e-commerce site or e-business. According to the Google team, there are something like 130,000 applications hosted on the Engine that are being used every week.

But this post actually isn't about that platform. It is about one of the organizations I interviewed this week that is using the Google App Engine to host a new applications focused on community supported agriculture (CSA), called Farmigo.

Another primer, according to Farmigo founder Benzi Ronen: CSA is used to describe a business model in which individuals "subscribe" to the produce, meats, dairy products or other goods being raised or harvested by a small farm. You are, in essence, helping to finance the farmer's growing season (whatever period he or she happens to honor). If the season is good, awesome for you, but you are also sharing in the risk. You, as the CSA sponsor, go pick your food up at a preappointed place. I did a quick search for CSA opportunities near my home in New Jersey, and there aren't that many. But if you live in Manhattan or one of the five borough, you have many many choices.

Ronen, who spent some time during his childhood on an Israeli kibbutz, estimates that out of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, probably between 5,000 and 6,000 fall into the CSA model. He says Farmigo was created to help those CSA farms deal with something that many of them aren't really good at doing: running their business using technology. The Internet helps cut out intermediaries and lets farmers communicate directly with their subscribers, which means they can collect more money per dollar of goods produced.

Farmigo handles all the information about account relationships, customizing the site as necessary for individual farms and backing up the data on a weekly basis. It charges farms 2 percent of revenue, based on what they deliver per month. So, a $100,000 operation would pay Farmigo $2,000 for the year for running its Web site, hosting it and managing all the records.

"We needed to create a system that wasn't just a back office system but that was also an interactive office. From our standpoint we wanted to focus on creating the best experience for the farmers and their subscribers. Management, buildings and installing servers. That is not what we need to be worrying about," Ronen says.

Full disclosure: Before I talked to Ronen, I didn't know the origins of the CSA model. But I do know this: Farmigo offers another great example of how cloud services are rewriting the rules of sustainable business.  You can debate whether or not they offer a "greener" approach to computing, but one thing is clear: without the reach of the Internet, CSA won't go much farther than a niche movement. Via the cloud, however, it could blossom.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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