Helping Sustainable Farms Pivot To Direct-To-Consumer Sales

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Late last year, Steward introduced a soup-to-nuts-platform for small, sustainable farmers, with tech tools for raising money from existing contacts, accounting and selling directly to consumers. Started in 2016, the Portland, Ore., company also has an online platform for investing in sustainable farms.

As it happens, the platform fortuitously helps farmers with new demands stemming from COVID-related pivoting. So with more farmers switching their business models from focusing on restaurants, which are largely shuttered across the country, to targeting consumers, the company is stepping up the platform’s roll-out.

While that pivot is proving to be a godsend for these farmers, according to Steward’s founder Dan Miller, it’s also a logistical and operational nightmare. They’re flooded with orders, experiencing a two to three time increase in demand, he says. But they lack the infrastructure needed to handle all that business. “Most sustainable farmers, their systems are handwritten paper,” he says. “They haven’t needed to have a robust method in place before this. But they’ve never seen this kind of demand.”

 Miller launched the company to help small, sustainable farmers get access to capital. “If they’re not an industrial farm, they have trouble getting financing,” he says. To that end, he formed the Steward Farm Trust aimed at offering a portfolio of loans targeting regenerative farms. Then he opened it up to all U.S. residents through a Reg A SEC-regulated crowdfunding platform. Over $3 million has been loaned to 16 farms located throughout the U.S. Miller estimates that about one-quarter of the 2 million small-to-medium-sized farms in the U.S. could be considered to be sustainable.

More to the Puzzle

But along the way, Miller also realized that fundraising was one small piece of the puzzle. Farmers faced a great many other challenges. Perennially understaffed, they lacked efficient methods for accounting and bookkeeping. And those who wanted to target consumers needed new e-commerce systems for orders, distribution and the like. 

Plus, many farmers didn’t necessarily require the Steward crowdfunding system to raise money, since they already had strong customer networks they could tap. What they needed, instead, was a software tool which could help them raise capital from those existing relationships, one that assisted with such tasks as managing all the required documents and compliance issues.

With that in mind, right before COVID struck, Miller introduced a suite of tech tools to help with accounting, bookkeeping, fundraising and e-commerce, charging a subscription starting at $99 a month. Ten farms are now using Steward’s ecommerce software.

One example: Fisheye Farms in Detroit, which grows produce, herbs and flowers for area restaurants, farmers markets and neighbors. Pre-COVID, sales primarily were to local restaurants. But about a month ago, the farm switched to targeting consumers and started using Steward’s e-commerce platform to take pre-orders of farm boxes, which are pre-packaged for pickup to improve efficiency and minimize contact.

Another: Naked Acres, a sustainable family farm on 75 acres of land in Beavercreek, Ore., that is using Steward’s fundraising tool to raise financing for working capital improvements and land purchase.

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