CropMobster’s new-style electronic grange hall stems food waste.
Standing amid 50 glorious acres of fecund farmland near Bloomfield, Nick Papadopoulos rolls facts out of his mouth so quickly he could be reading them. But he’s not. He’s reciting from memory. As the lacinato and other kale fields warm in the early morning sun, Papadopoulos reports that so much water intended for food production is wasted each year that the runoff could hydrate every home on the planet for that year. That 30 percent of the food produced globally each year is wasted; in the United States, it’s 40 percent. That 20 percent of food produced on a farm never leaves it. That if food waste were a country, say, like China and the U.S., it would be just behind China and the U.S. in the amount of carbon emissions it produces annually.
So naturally, the conversation turns to Facebook and refrigerators.
Papadopoulos, 38, has cannily used social media platforms like Facebook to take his own small step at curbing the problems
illustrated by the facts that he knows so well. And we all know how it feels to open the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer and discover that something has been squandered.
“I was standing in the cooler of our farm fridge on a Sunday night,” says Papadopoulos, who is the general manager of Bloomfield Farms, “and it finally just clicked in my brain that we were seeing boxes of produce come back from farmers’ markets unsold and we were seeing overharvest from the week before that we didn’t have a market for. This food typically would go to the chickens or the compost. We’d give some away to friends, but most of it was lost in terms of not getting to people who needed it or who wanted to eat this premium local food.”
Necessity, meet invention: CropMobster.com was born.
We need more innovators to start by solving problems. And if you can solve problems, you create value - true value. Nick Papadopoulos
“With just a few experiments on our farm’s Facebook page and our blog, we very quickly realized OK, there is the possibility that we could create a community exchange that allowed other farms, grocers, caterers, and others to use this whenever they had excess food that should go to people,” Papadopoulos explains.
Having launched on March 24, 2013, CropMobster had some 5,000 subscribers by early October and, Papadopoulos is proud to note, had already moved over 100,000 pounds of food—not including chickens, cows, eggs, horses, pigs, and goats.
The idea is simple: invite other producers to advertise their overstocked goods on the CropMobster.com platform and let them handle the transaction. If you as a producer make money, terrific, please leave a tip in CropMobster’s “tip jar.” If you break even, don’t worry about the tip. Get them next time.
Those who sign up to receive CropMobster alerts soon discover their email has become a whole lot more fun as notices for 40 pounds of grass-fed lamb bones, 13 boxes of organic vegetables at 90 percent discount, and even a Swiss hoe with oscillating knives come through for sale. Other postings seek such items as 200 pounds of certified organic peppers, gleaning volunteers for last-harvest berry fields, or help to staff food events. Moreover, these opportunities go—and fast.
There have been lots of great ideas, many of them involving social media or at least computers, that aim to connect providers with customers in Sonoma County, and most of them have failed.
“A lot of times technologies emerge that seem promising,” Papadopoulos says sagely, “but they’ve got to be able to ‘speak farmer.’”
What does that mean?
“It means factoring in the needs of agriculture and local farmers from the beginning,” he says.
Teaching consumers who are used to going to the supermarket for their food to “speak farmer” is among Papadopoulos’ passions and CropMobster’s lessons.
Interacting with CropMobster generally requires the buyer to visit the selling farm to pick up the purchase. Once there, they’ll see where the food is grown and meet the people growing it. They tend to get hooked on the experience.
Papadopoulos’ Bloomfield Farms hosts a U-Pick brunch during harvest where families can come to pick their own produce and enjoy a pay-what-you-will meal. That’s just one of the innovations that Papadopoulos and his wife, Jess Flood, have incorporated since they returned to Flood’s family farm almost two years ago.
Flood is an event designer by trade; Papadopoulos is just preternaturally ready for this gig.
“I started out working in communities facilitating dialogues around public policy, natural resources, agriculture, and water issues as a consultant who would work with groups to tackle critical local and regional issues,” he says.
“I developed that into a practice around business and project management, so I began working in the private sector for companies and brands to grow teams and accomplish significant and large-scale initiatives and then, in between, I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur.” And of course he’s worked in wine.
Essentially, Papadopoulos has taken his peripatetic policy-wonk background, coupled it with his innate sense for great social media, partnered it with professionals who “speak Google” like Gary and Joanna Cedar of Press Tree, and turned the whole thing into a new-style electronic grange hall that brings farmers and buyers together.
The team has also launched FoodWasteNews.com, an aggregate site devoted to education on, well, the name says it all. Ever restless, Papadopoulos had just spent a day in Sacramento meeting with the California Department of Food and Agriculture as well as the mayor of Elk Grove, population 200,000. Suffice it to say that people are interested in the CropMobster model.
Will it be monetized?
“This whole idea of monetization just drives me nuts,” Papadopoulos says heatedly. “Of course it’s important for any operation or business or venture to be viable and make money or at least break even, but when that’s the first question people ask, that just drives me nuts.”
He shakes his head. “We need more innovators to start by solving problems. And if you can solve problems, you create value—true value. And if you create true value, there are aspects of that where people will have no problem chipping in to your continued operation. So yeah, we have a plan to keep our operation viable, and that’s first and foremost by being able to further our technology and grow a team.
“Right now, none of us are making any money,” Papadopoulos says unconcernedly.
“We’d like to earn a humble commission down the road, but right now—we’re just working for tips.”