Pushing for a modern agricultural revolution, the Spanish company CrowdFarming, is working towards democratizing the European food supply chain. E&M author Sara Piludu interviewed the company’s CEO, Gonzalo Úrculo, to learn more about the purpose and history of the company as well as about Úrculo’s personal path to becoming an entrepreneur.
The Spanish company “CrowdFarming” runs a digital marketplace that combines the non-digital world of farming with the world of online shopping: fruit, vegetables and other agricultural products can be either ordered in a box from the farmers or via “adoption” of a piece of land, a single animal or plant that comes with a regular delivery of a certain product. While most of us are used to grocery shopping in supermarkets, “CrowdFarming” aims at becoming an alternative to big distributors that too often put immense financial pressure on farmers.
“It all started with a family problem”
E&M: Gonzalo, tell us a bit about yourself: How did your personal, social and financial background contribute to becoming an entrepreneur?“
Gonzalo Úrculo: You become an entrepreneur over time, at least I didn’t seek to go into entrepreneurship. In the beginning, it was more like “hey, I’m going to recover a farm”. It all started when my grandfather passed away in 2000. He owned an orange farm in Valencia. Until 2009 no one in the family could really manage the farm and the estate, it even started losing money due to the falling prices of oranges since Spain entered the Euro. I convinced my parents to let me take over the farm while they were trying to sell it. Before that, I had set up several websites while at university and worked in logistics and automation. So I became a farmer at 23-24 years old though I didn’t have a great deal of agricultural knowledge. Luckily, not many people were interested in buying my grandfather’s farm, and therefore I had enough time to learn a lot of things and started doing very well. Together with my brother Gabriel we changed to organic farming and built a website. This is how we started selling our oranges directly to consumers in Germany.
Combining a sector that is not very digitalised like agriculture with the passion for the digital world, was a true booster for innovation and it encouraged our decision TO further enter entrepreneurship
In the very beginning, we sold only two or three orders a day, but each time we learned how to do things better and I became more and more confident in the future because I had a vision. So not only did we recover the farm, we surrounded ourselves with more talented people and were able to set up a good team and we started creating and introducing more things. I am a very curious person and in the world of farmer-to-consumer, everything is yet to be discovered. Combining a sector that is not very digitalized like agriculture with the passion for the digital world, was a true booster for innovation and it encouraged our decision to further enter entrepreneurship.
How did the four of you founders meet?
Gabriel and I are brothers and our CTO, Moíses Calviño, was a friend of ours that also happened to excel at programming, which was a skill we needed to set up a website and later an online marketplace. We met our CTO and the fourth co-founder, Juliette Simonin, early on through a mutual friend. She was looking for a more meaningful job and we were looking for someone with organizational, financial, and analytical skills so she fit right in.
The food supply chain needs to be disrupted
E&M: Why did you decide to found CrowdFarming?
It was through our experience of cultivating and selling oranges ourselves. We realized that the food supply chain was highly inefficient and needed to be disrupted. We decided to bypass the traditional system of selling at a loss to intermediaries and create our own system by selling directly to end consumers in Germany.
More and more farmers asked for help and advice. So we decided to share our knowledge, to create a platform and provide services to give all farmers the opportunity to sell their products autonomously. This is how CrowdFarming was born.
Tell our readers: what is CrowdFarming all about? How does it work? And what is the core mission of your company?
CrowdFarming’s mission is to democratize the food supply chain. More and more farmers want to sell their fruit directly to the consumer in order to decommodify their products, to have more power over the selling price, and more control over the sales of their products. At the same time, on the other end of the chain, more and more consumers are looking to buy directly from the original source, and make an impact with their purchase. In other words, more and more consumers are aware that if they buy their products in one establishment or another, they may not build the world they want.
For the farmers and people who want more ecological products with more traceability, we want to be the driving force. We provide the services that farmers need to be able to sell and send their fruit to the consumer. But what do the farmers need? First, they need a web platform where they can market their products. Second, they need a logistics system that allows them to collect the packages from the farms and take them to the final consumer. Third, they need a customer service team in all languages to be able to attend to the needs of the customers. Lastly, they need marketing to make them known. We provide all of these services and try to function as a lever to promote the agri-social revolution.
For the farmers and people who want more ecological products with more traceability, we want to be the driving force.
How did the farmers respond to your idea? Is it changing now that your company is growing?
We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the farmers, as they are the ones that suffer most from the traditional food supply chain. Word got around quickly and we are increasingly receiving petitions from farmers that want to join us from all over Europe, especially now that we are growing so much. Many farmers also heard from us through recommendations that the other farmers, that have already joined us, have told.
When we set up CrowdFarming, we did it with the idea of “hey, let’s turn a small local success story, which was Naranjas del Carmen, into a multi-local success story, which can be useful to more farmers”. We put the farmer at the center of our activities. But there are times when we can’t cater to every farmer in the way that they would like us to. We have to create a fair system for everybody. For example, some farmers would prefer that we don’t bring more farmers onto the platform who sell similar products because they don’t want the competition. But when someone had had very little crop for years, we need to have more growers to ensure that we always have enough to match our demand. And we also want to create a healthy and competitive market within the platform.
One of the biggest challenges: changing the customers’ habits
E&M: What are the main challenges when creating a distribution system for both vendors and buyers across Europe?
For me, one of the main challenges within farmer-to-consumer is the shopping experience at all levels. Many Europeans like to buy directly from the farmer but don’t want to change their buying habits. They are used to buying at a supermarket, where maybe you get three clementines. In a marketplace where you can buy directly from the farmer, it doesn’t make sense to buy only three clementines. And also the growers are not used to selling small quantities and have to learn how to develop packaging, which is what we are helping them with. The challenge is making sure the shopping experience is still perfect. By perfect I don’t mean that all the fruits are the same and perfect aesthetically as if coming from a screw factory. I mean that the fruit tastes good, that it arrives more or less on the estimated day, that the agreed quantity arrives and that it reaches the customer in a good state. At the end of the day, we are talking about food which is something people need on a daily basis. So we want to become the place where people buy their food the most often and for that, we have to give our customers a very, very good experience. So the challenge is mainly of a logistical nature.
What role does social media play for CrowdFarming?
Social media is an important tool for us and our farmers to communicate with our customers, gain notoriety and build brand awareness. We receive a lot of feedback through social media that helps us improve and in turn, we can use the platform to share the realities of farming with our community.
How do you incorporate social and environmental sustainability in your business?
Sustainability is in our DNA, it is one of the major motivators for our company’s existence and as such, it is the basis of any venture we undertake. We call our business model a “win-win-winner” because not only do the producers and consumers win when challenging the status quo of the agro-food industry, but also does the environment.
E&M: How do you and your employees keep up with all the languages both the farmers and the customers speak in Europe?
It is important to have a “multi-local” mentality. Multi-local is having people on the ground, people who not only speak the local languages but who understand and have grown up in those cultures. Multi-local mentality means adapting to each market we are in.
We also have a customer service team that works in seven languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Dutch. Some of the team members speak even more languages but these are the languages that we officially provide for now because they are the languages that the majority of our customers speak.
Can you name examples of how European politics have influenced your company?
The EU’s Farm-to-Fork strategy and its commitment to increasing the percentage of organic farming are two of the main examples that are closely linked to our company.
How can our readers support you and your stakeholders – besides buying products from the farmers’ market of course?
A good indirect way of supporting us and the farmers, in general, is by spreading knowledge and creating awareness of the inefficiency of the food supply chain and how unsustainable the agro-food industry as a whole is.
What are your plans for the rest of 2022?
We have a lot of big plans for 2022 but cannot disclose them all quite yet. What I can say is that we are working on offering even more types of products, focusing more on mixed boxes and smaller boxes, and in general making CrowdFarming an alternative to the supermarket for more people. We will also expand our teams in countries such as France and Germany and are working on improving our logistics system.
E&M: Thank you for your insights, Gonzalo!
The interviewee Gonzalo Úrculo is a Spanish Farmeneur (entrepreneur and farmer) and Co-Founder of “CrowdFarming”. Visit the CrowdFarming website: https://www.crowdfarming.com/