Seattle startup brings the sharing economy to dinner tables, backyard farms
by Josh Cohen
Seattle Tilth's urban demonstration garden at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford Credit: Leslie Seaton
Given Seattle’s long tech history and environmentally friendly bent, it makes sense that a few entrepreneurs are trying to bolster the hyperlocal food movement with an online presence. A new Seattle startup, ÜbrLocal, wants to help backyard farmers of all stripes get their crops to market while building a stronger community around local food.
“We’re trying to turn backyards and kitchens into a place of economy; a place of community and connection,” said ÜbrLocal founder and CEO Kamal Patel. “By giving people more access to local, sustainable food and giving people a say in what they’re buying and selling, we’re helping democratize the food system.”
ÜbrLocal is creating an online marketplace for hobbyist green thumbs and commercial growers alike that operates on two tiers. The first is a peer-to-peer marketplace that connects backyard growers and urban farmers with consumers and other gardeners. The second: a soon-to-be-launched online store called Food Stand that will sell local produce and cottage goods — such as honey, jams and cookies from licensed commercial producers — for delivery to your door by Freewheel Cargo’s bicycles.
The Food Stand model is very similar to Amazon Fresh, Portland’s Food Hub, SPUD.com and others, just on a much smaller scale. Patel sees his company complimenting the efforts to expand access to the local food system pioneered by local food movements, such as farmers markets and CSAs — community supported agriculture groups where you can subscribe to buy produce from local farmers.
“A lot of farmers can’t sell [in Seattle farmers markets] because the markets don’t have enough space or the farmers don’t have enough product,” said Patel. “We’re building a way to get more of those producers into the economy by lowering the bar and making local food more accessible.”
The ÜbrLocal peer-to-peer marketplace has been online since September of last year and has about 300 users selling, bartering or requesting everything from greens to eggs to compost and open space in which to garden. As of now, ÜbrLocal does not charge for using the peer-to-peer market place and all transactions between users are done in person and in cash. Patel is hoping that, as it grows, the peer-to-peer site becomes an incubator of suppliers for Food Stand.
Food Stand is the crux of their business model. Approved commercial vendors will be able to list their produce and cottage goods such as jams, cookies and honey on Food Stand. Buyers select and purchase the items they want delivered like any other online store and ÜbrLocal takes 25 percent of sales. ÜbrLocal will launch a test of Food Stand this summer with vendors such as Seattle Tilth, Urban Bee Company, Skylight Farm in Snohomish and others. For the test, deliveries will be limited to the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
For local food producers like Seattle Tilth, ÜbrLocal presents another venue to get their products to market. They have three educational farms in Rainier Beach, the University District and Auburn. They currently sell crops from those farms through CSAs, farmers markets, and in some grocery stores and use the proceeds to fund their educational programs.
“There are a lot of unique [distribution] models popping up and it is exciting,” said Seattle Tilth Food Hub Manager Chris Iberly. “This is another network we can tap into and the more networks and communities we can build around the region, the more viable and accessible sustainable local food will be.”
One issue sharing economy startups such as AirBnb, Lyft and others have run into is their potential violations of city and state regulations. But thanks to surprisingly relaxed city, county and state regulations on the production and sale of produce and eggs in backyard gardens and urban farms, it appears ÜbrLocal is in the regulatory clear.
Following Seattle’s 2010 “Year of Urban Agriculture,” the City Council updated city land use codes to allow urban farming and community gardening in all non-industrial zones and upped the number of home chickens allowed from three to eight. And Public Health-Seattle & King County says that “unprocessed fruits and vegetables that are nonpotentially hazardous, non ready-to-eat, and minimally cut” are exempt from the local public health food code. Similarly, on eggs, the Washington Department of Health says no licensing is needed when egg producers sell their flock’s eggs at the place of production to individual consumers.
In the long term, Patel sees his company helping reshape the food system.
“The urban space is a place where people enmasse can get involved and effect policy,” said Patel. “One of our goals is to design a food system after how nature may design one. We’re applying permaculture design principles to the city and using the Internet to help us build it.”
A local food system is unlikely to supplant industrial agribusiness anytime soon, however. According to King County’s 2009 Farms Report, it takes 14,445 acres to grow the amount of produce King County residents consume annually and a whopping 1.1 million acres for livestock for the meat consumed annually. Seattle proper is 91,200 acres.
Branden Born, a University of Washington associate professor of Urban Design and Planning and a food systems expert, says despite that, there’s still plenty of reason to keep building a local food movement.
“Individual operations, especially at the scale of ÜbrLocal, don’t have tremendous impact on either the climate or industrial food system. But magnified over lots and lots of these — whether Übrlocal or Clean Greens Farm in Carnation or the NW Agg Business Center — we’re starting to educate suppliers, rebuild the regional supply chain and increase peoples’ understanding of where food comes from and how it gets to them,” said Born.
ÜbrLocal Outreach Coordinator Greg Meyer is both a realist and an optimist about the company’s potential.
“We understand that people aren’t going to be able to grow all their own food in the city; it’s just not possible,” said Meyer. “But if you can grow one plant, a small garden, something you can eat, it changes the way you think about food.”
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