Giving up police work to grow passion fruit might be considered an unconventional career move, but that is what Sergio Quijada Domínguez did when a hereditary heart condition forced him to retire at the age of 32 after 14 years in Spain’s Guardia Civil.
Quijada, who has about 1,500 plants on his farm near Vélez-Málaga in southern Spain, found he was good at growing passion fruit – what he lacked was the knowhow to sell them.
“It was the tool I was missing,” he says. “I had my product and I wanted to sell it direct to the consumer but I had no way of doing that and normal distributors added a lot to the price.”
It was the man who delivered his cardboard packing cases who suggested he approach CrowdFarming, a one-stop shop to handle administration and logistics and link customers directly with farmers.
CrowdFarming was founded in 2017 by orange farmer Gonzalo Úrculo and his brother Gabriel, who wanted to get a fair price for their produce by cutting out the middleman. The site now hosts 182 farms in 12 countries with 500,000 consumers.
“In the conventional system, the supermarket decides the final selling price based on what the consumer is willing to pay,” says Gonzalo Úrculo. “This determines what supermarkets pay to their suppliers, which in turn have to deal with other intermediaries. At the very end of the chain we find farmers, for whom it’s a take-it-or-leave-it negotiation as they have no bargaining power and time is not on their side.”
He adds that by the time you buy an orange from a supermarket in northern Europe it has been travelling or been in storage for at least three weeks. But with CrowdFarming, in return for a direct relationship with the grower, the customer gets a better, fresher and often cheaper product.
“We only pick oranges when they’re wanted,” he says. “You send in your order, the next day we pick them and they’re with you within three days. Plus, I earn five times what I would on the open market. That said, our oranges are still cheaper than the average price for organic oranges in the countries we sell to.”
Within three years of setting up the CrowdFarming website, Úrculo was able to quit his day job and concentrate on running the brothers’ organic orange farm in Valencia.
Their customers, mostly from northern Europe, like to visit the farm and when disease forced the brothers to replant 10,000 trees, someone came up with the idea of asking customers to adopt them. Within a year, the trees had all been paid for. Across the platform, 188,842 trees, plants or fields have been adopted.
Kelly Go worked with CrowdFarming right from the start when she set up her Auro Chocolate business in the Philippines. She buys cocoa beans from a series of cooperatives and carries out the fermentation and drying process before going on to make chocolate.
“We pay farmers between 30-50% above the commodity market price,” says Go. “Compared to a west African farmer, our farmers are earning almost double. We also pay for their certification as organic farmers. Once they’re certified they get an additional premium. We also run training programmes and help farmers to enter competitions in order to gain more recognition.”
Auro produces about a tonne of chocolate a day and sells about 70% of it in the Philippines. In common with others on the CrowdFarming platform, her biggest international client is Germany, where demand for organically produced goods is high.
In Cammarata, in central Sicily, Nicola De Gregorio uses ancient grain varieties to produce his Fastuchera handmade pasta. The grain harvested from the traditional Sicilian tumminìa and russulidda varieties is milled and the pasta dried in the traditional way over the course of several days, unlike conventional pasta which is dried quickly, at high temperatures.
De Gregorio joined the CrowdFarming platform in 2019 and says “it helped me get through Covid by having a direct relationship with clients”.
Most of Fastuchera’s customers are in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and De Gregorio says they often drop by to visit the farm, especially those who have adopted wheatfields.
“People are prepared to pay more because they know they are supporting a form of agriculture that minimises environmental impact and where the emphasis is on quality,” he says.
Sustainable farming is something Quijada – who sells his passion fruit mainly to customers in Belgium, France and Germany – also values and he says the platform shares that philosophy.
As well as facilitating contact between growers and consumers, CrowdFarming minimises environmental impact by keeping transportation to a minimum.
“Of course, I can’t compete with Colombia or Vietnam where passion fruit grow wild, but Europe is big – big enough to buy all the passion fruits or avocados or mangoes that we grow in Spain,” says Quijada.
In the traditional supply chain, farmers sell to intermediaries, who transport the produce to their storage depots and then sell the products to a supermarket chain, which distributes them to local stores. Then the consumer has to travel to the supermarket. CrowdFarming ships direct from the farmer to the consumer and the platform ensures that different orders to the same destination are grouped together so trucks are always full.
The system is a win-win for producers and consumers and for the environment, says Úrculo. “Buying food directly from farmers is the most powerful everyday act available to anyone to create a positive social and environmental impact,” he says.