Hello! Today we meet with Roger from Farmonize. He tells us how a personal experience had led him to tackle some of the challenges of modern agriculture and to design an innovative "farming as a service model", now growing in Shanghai.
If you want to know how to grow your own, safe food in Shanghai, keep reading..!
Can you explain us what is wrong about the current agricultural business model in China? How does it impact the consumers and farmers?
The main problem is how risk is disproportionately loaded onto farmers, who are more often than not, the people with the least power and financial stability. When you put all this risk on a person, they are going to find ways to reduce their risk exposure and insure that their time and effort doesn’t go to waste. For farmers, this role is filled by chemicals. Whether it’s a pesticide to prevent their crop from getting wiped out by bugs, an herbicide to reduce their labor cost, or whatever new and strange chemical or shady process that can make vegetables grow faster, larger, heavier, or look nicer. For consumers, they bear practically zero risk and as a result they have almost zero control over how vegetables are grown. After all, if you were a partner in a company and you had zero money or stake in it, then you would have zero voting rights as well.
What alternatives/ solutions does Farmonize bring to the sector?
Farmonize removes the farmer’s incentive to use chemicals and dishonest practices simply because we unlink the connection between output and income. We take farmers, who are paid by piece work, and turn them into salary workers with clearly stated objectives and rules. As for consumers, we put the control and power into the hands of consumers since they are acting as long-term investors in the farm, rather than short-term buyers of acommoditized product.
Tell us more about your personal story, what are the key momentums that led you to start this project etc?
I started learning how to grow my own food in 2009, about one year after arriving in Shanghai in 2008.
I was born and raised in Texas, so one of my most favorite cuisines is Mexican since it is practically my hometown food. Growing up in Texas, my parents and I would always eat at Mexican restaurants, and any decent Mexican restaurant in Texas will always give you chips and salsa to start off your meal. I loved eating chips and salsa so much that my mother started making it at home for me, but the problem was that I would sometimes eat an entire batch of salsa in a single day, and then demand her to make more. Now my mom loves me just as much as any other mom does, but she was also a store owner/manager and she didn’t have all day to be making me salsa every day, so she decided to teach me how to cook by learning how to cut vegetables to make pico de gallo salsa.
So back in 2009, I wanted to make somes alsa and everybody knows that if you want to make an authentic dish, you have to use authentic ingredients. For pico de gallo, you need a jalapeno pepper. Is earched high and low, near and far, but no store, market or website was offering jalapenos, so I was faced with a choice: give up or learn how to grow jalapeno peppers. Being the stubborn person that I am, I chose the latter. I started researching hydroponics and began buying all the supplies and equipmentI needed to start growing in my home. After six months of hard work and effort, I had my first harvest of jalapenos.
After that, I started learning progressively more advanced systems and techniques, and buying more advanced equipment and supplies. I began selling hydroponic equipment and supplies, and started developing bridges with the suppliers. After about a year or so, one of them offered me a job to work for them selling hydroponic equipment in 2013. From there I started learning more about larger scale hydroponic systems and I was exposed to the wider international world of hydroponics. It was at this point that I started wondering how much it would cost to actually grow enough food to live off of, and after all the calculations I found out that it would cost a small fortune and I would have to make the home hydroponic farm my part-time job just to make it work. So I had reached the pinnacle of urban farming technology but once I was at the top, I made my own conclusion that this was not the solution for growing food for oneself.
Luckily for me in 2014, one of the people I had met at a local makerspace had a family friend who was willing to rent out green houses to us to grow whatever we wanted and to help provide and manage the labor necessary to maintain the land. After my first harvest of peppers, people started asking me where I got them from, and when I told them I grew them on my farm, they were very interested in what we were doing. That was the beginning of Farmonize and the farming as a service model. Since then, we’ve improved and iterated the service to be a more complete consumer-grade service and we’ve been talking to more and more farmers to add to our program.
我在2009年开始学习如何种植自己的食物，这大约在2008年到达上海一年以后。我在德克萨斯州出生和长大，所以我最喜欢的美食之一是墨西哥菜，因为它实际上是我的家乡食物。在德克萨斯州的成长经历中，我的父母和我会一直在墨西哥餐馆吃饭，那里的任何一个像样的墨西哥餐厅都会在餐前提供薯片和色拉。我很喜欢吃薯片和色拉，所以我的母亲开始在家里为我做这些，但问题是我有时会在一天内吃完所有的，然后继续要求她做。尽管我妈妈很爱我，但她也要经营商店，所以不能天天帮我做。她决定教我做饭，教我如何切蔬菜来做色拉。所以在2009年，我就想做一些色拉。但大家都知道，如果你想做一个正宗的菜，你必须使用正宗的食材。对于picode gallo来说，你需要辣椒酱。我东找西找，都没有在商店、市场或网站找到jalapenos。这时候我面临着一个选择：要么放弃，要么学习如何自己种辣椒。我是一个很固执的人，我选择了后者。我开始研究水培技术，并开始购买我在家里种植所需的所有用品和设备。经过六个月的辛勤工作和努力，我收获了我的第一株jalapenos。之后，我开始逐步学习更先进的系统和技术，并购买更先进的设备。我开始销售水耕设备，并开始与供应商进行沟通接洽。大约一年左右，其中的一人为我提供了一份工作，为他们在2013年销售水培设备。从那时候开始，我就开始学习更多关于大规模水培系统的知识，并且接触了更广泛的国际上水培的知识。就是此时，我开始好奇自己种食物究竟要多少钱。我算了算，发现这要花蛮多钱，所以我必须做这份兼职以实现自己种植的梦想。其实那时候我已经达到了农业技术知识的顶峰，但我觉得这不是自己种植食物的解决方案。幸运的是，我在2014年，我在一个当地制造商遇到一个朋友，他愿意出租温室给我们种我们任何想种的东西，也愿意在为我们提供管理土地的人力。在我第一次收获辣椒后，人们开始问我从哪里得到的，当我告诉他们是自己农场里种的时候，他们对此很感兴趣。那就是 Farmonize和农业服务模式的开端。自那时起，我们改进了服务，使之成为一个更完整的消费级服务，我们一直在跟越来越多的农民接洽，以扩张我们的项目。
What is Farmonize business model? How do you sustain financially?
Most people think of agriculture and conclude that is must involve producing and selling products, but when you produce and sell anything, you are incentivized to maximize output and minimize cost, which are the reasons why there are so many food safety and environmental problems that result from this drive to maximize and minimize. Because of this, we focus on providing services to clients, and we add a percentage to the land, labor, supply, and equipment that we help the client to manage. This helps to keep us honest and not cut corners to make an extra percentage point or two in profit.
From a consumer point of view, can you explain us how does it works to use Farmonize?
We have an online vegetable selection process that clients can interact with using a drag and drop system. For each season, we have a selection of vegetables that can be potentially grown and we mark which ones that the farmer is familiar with growing, ones that are possible but slightly riskier, and ones that are long shots. The client then drops these vegetables into first, second, and third priorities, and Farmonize will analyse the selections and consult with the client if there are any issues. If there aren’t, then the client’s land is prepared and the seeds and seedlings are planted within 2-3 weeks.
Once the plants are in the ground, the client’s subscription period begins, and updates are sent 2-4 times a month, depending on how much there is to report. Starting at around the 6th week, leafy vegetables will become ready to harvest and the farmer will pick, package, and ship the vegetables to the client. Each subscription includes 1 weekly shipment, and this can be assigned to anybody the client wants to, such as friends, co-workers, and family.
Do you integrate other actions for more sustainability into your processes (waste management, packaging,…) ?
I think the biggest problem we help to alleviate is waste: food waste, chemical waste, and logistics waste. Waste is prevalent in all links of the current food supply chain, from the farm, to shipping, to retail outlets, to consumer’s refrigerators, and if we could reduce that food waste, then more people can get the food they need without any technological breakthrough.
A lot of food waste in agricultural production comes from the misguided notion that unnaturally large or symmetrical produce is somehow healthier or more suitable for purchase than naturally-sized or misshapen produce. Because of this prejudice, a lot of vegetables that are grown are never even harvested since they don’t meet the standards and customers wouldn’t want to buy them.
Farmonize helps to reduce food waste by educating consumers about what natural looking vegetables look and taste like and convincing them that imperfect produce is just as delicious as perfect looking produce. Also, since clients are effectively watching their vegetables or livestock grow upfrom baby to adult, they can build a stronger connection to these products and learn to appreciate them in a way that simply showing up at a store and buying something cannot achieve.
In terms of chemical waste, the majority of pollution from vegetable production comes from the overuse of chemical fertilizers that saturate waterways with nutrients and cause algal blooms that suffocate wildlife and from overuse of pesticides which kill all insects, including beneficial ones such as bees. Farmonize helps in this aspect since we support sustainable farming methods that focus on reducing external inputs, closing the loop using recycling methods such as composting and green manures, and either using naturally derived insect repellents or just accepting the fact that some bug damage is unavoidable and not a reason to reject otherwise perfectly edible food.
Finally, logistics waste is an after thought for traditional food supply chains since their main concerns are agricultural yield and productive efficiency, and most times it is more cost effective or easier to sell something by growing it very far away and shipping it by very wasteful means,such as airplane. Furthermore, companies respond to what consumers demand, and if people demand summer crops in the middle of winter, they will find a way to get it done, even if means shipping a product across a continent or an ocean to do it. Farmonize helps to reduce this impact by working with farms that are within 2 hours driving distance of the client and by growing vegetables that are in season, rather than providing all vegetables at all times of the year.
What’s your dream for the future of China agricultural system?
My hope is that consumers will have a greater appreciation for the work that is going into producing the food that they eat, the food that influences their health and future well-being. The current system has turned agricultural products into commodities and most people treat them as such.
If consumers can have greater awareness of the hard work and technique that goes into them, then they can make more informed decisions. The goal of Farmonize is to facilitate the small-scale management of vegetable and livestock farms, and while I think that this is the best way for people to engage with farmers and the farming process, I also understand that this might not be an aspiration for everybody. But if you truly enjoy food, you have to appreciate the quality of ingredients, and the best way to control the quality of something is to produceit yourself, and Farmonize helps food lovers to achieve this goal.
More info about Farmonize here: