Wednesday, September 18, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Tech-savvy food start-up empowering local farmers

In a warehouse in east Vancouver, a sleek black box hangs on a wall near a phalanx of multicoloured electric…


In a warehouse in east Vancouver, a sleek black box hangs on a wall near a phalanx of multicoloured electric tricycles.

It’s an otherwise unremarkable setting — just another industrial space in a North American city — but it’s a scene that could only play out in Vancouver. It’s the shared home of Ello Foods, a tech-savvy local food start-up, and Shift, a zero-carbon tricycle delivery company.

Together, those trikes and that black box may contain the key to the future of the local food movement.

Inside the black box is a custom-designed computer system that could help local food go mainstream, by using cloud-computing technology to make it easier for farmers to get their food delivered to local plates.

“We’re hacking the whole food system,” says Rae Abbott, CEO of Ello.

The middle ground

Abbott says there’s a gap that needs filling in the current local food distribution model.

According to Abbott, the big boys are doing well — large, industrial-size farms, selling mostly into the global market — and so are the little guys, small family farms that do the rounds of Vancouver’s farmers’ markets.

“But small- to medium-size growers don’t have access to the market [for local food] beyond farmers’ markets,” she says. “We’re here to support those developing growers.”

Her black box is wirelessly connected to Ello’s “pods,” 20-foot-long shipping containers that have been modified into giant, smart fridges. The pods have been outfitted with an array of high-tech equipment, including a humidity controller and light and temperature sensors.

The current system forces farmers to drive into the city to reach wholesalers and warehouses. Ello plans to turn it upside-down, bringing multiple warehouses out to farmers by placing pods at strategic locations in the Fraser Valley.

David Catzel thins out seedlings at Glorious Organics in Aldergrove. Glorious Organics delivers to restaurants in Vancouver on Thursdays - an 8-hour day of driving around the city.
David Catzel thins out seedlings at Glorious Organics in Aldergrove. Glorious Organics delivers to restaurants in Vancouver on Thursdays – an eight-hour day of driving around the city.

Abbott hopes this will enable new and developing growers to come into the local food distribution system in two ways: first, by lessening transportation costs; and second, allowing them to forgo investing in expensive refrigeration systems of their own.

Dr. Lenore Newman, a Canada Research Chair in food security and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, says Ello might be onto something.

“Across North America, farmers’ markets and local food have been incredibly successful,” she says. “But you hit a scale problem very quickly. We’re growing too fast for the current infrastructure.”

“It’s the middle ground that’s missing. It’s the medium-scale farm on the rural fringe that could supply a fair amount of local food to the city, if they only had a convenient way to get it into the city. They need a distribution system.”

Not too big, not too small

This is important especially in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, whose unique conditions favour mid-sized farming operations.

Most farms in North America are large, industrial-scale farms, says Newman. But, thanks to two key British Columbian factors — ubiquitous mountains and expensive real estate — that’s simply not feasible in the Fraser Valley.

“Because of the fluke of geography and the price of land, we have medium-sized farms,” says Newman. “Farmers can’t waste land in the valley because there isn’t any. You run into a mountain anywhere you turn.”

It’s a good problem to have. The valley’s limitations have forced farmers to become really efficient, says Newman.

And the Fraser Valley is so fertile — according to Newman, it’s the most productive farmland on earth aside from the Nile Valley — these mid-sized farms can actually compete, which is unusual.

“No question, that’s why we have a really good food culture here. So we have the product, we have the market, but no way to put the two together.”

Strain on farmers

For many Fraser Valley farmers, the only way to reach the market is by piling their produce into a truck and bringing it to Vancouver themselves.

Andrea Carlson is chef and owner of Burdock & Co, a restaurant on Main Street in Vancouver that specializes in local food. She places direct orders with farmers two to three times a week during the growing season.

That kind of small, specialized restaurant is just one of many delivery destinations for most of these farmers, who make multiple stops around Vancouver before heading back out to the valley.

“It’s a tremendous strain on them,” says Carlson. “They would rather be at their farms doing the work of farming rather than battling city traffic.”

Abbott’s gamble is that Ello’s pods will help farmers do just that: stay on their farms.

Although their pods are not in place yet — Abbott expects to have three pods up and running by the end of June, and 10 more in 2016 — Ello Foods is already working with about 30 growers, picking up their produce and bringing it back to the warehouse, where it’s then delivered around Vancouver by Shift’s tricycles.

“They’re so relieved,” she says. “One spinach grower who just found out about us said, ‘Why didn’t you call me two months ago? I don’t want to do anything but grow the food.’”

The black box

Newman cautions that Ello will need to win over the farmers’ trust.

Rae Abbott, CEO of Ello Foods, which like any self-respecting start-up has grown from a white board full of grand ideas and a couple of laptops.
Rae Abbott, CEO of Ello Foods, which, like any self-respecting start-up, has grown from a white board full of grand ideas and a couple of laptops.

“You have to be reliable so the farmer knows it’s going to work. They can’t bear any more risk because they’re already bearing a lot of risk: crop failure, drought, and so on.”

Abbott acknowledges that there’s an inherent risk in the Ello model. Farmers who use the pods will have to leave their produce on a rack, next to produce left there by other farmers, and then trust that Ello will take it from there.

But Abbott is confident her cloud-computing system will help alleviate any concerns.

“We can tell if the door is open. We can tell how long the door’s been open for. We can tell what the temperature change was. We’re putting auto keypad entry which will enable us to see who went in and how long they were in for.”

Lack of connection

Carlson worries Ello’s reliance on technology will take away from a key aspect of local food.

“It becomes very personal when you spend so much time knowing where the food’s coming from, literally knowing the ground that it’s being grown on. The thought of…something that’s cloud-distributed doesn’t sound very appealing to me. The romance is gone. The direct connection, which is so vital and so important to me, is no longer there.”

Abbott says that, through the cloud, each farmer’s produce will be trackable and traceable, so chefs will be able to order asparagus or kale from specific farmers with whom they may already have an established relationship.

But Carlson says a big part of the charm of local food is the connections that are established with farmers and the key relationships that are maintained by regular contact.

Nonetheless, Abbott sees a niche in the market for her cloud-based distribution system.

“Not every grower wants to be friends with the chef. I have one amazing grower who owns five acres up Highway 1. There’s a reason he wants to live up there.”

Making local food accessible

If the system works, there could be a big payoff for Vancouver-area residents, says Newman.

If medium-scale farmers can be convinced to keep 10 per cent of their food local instead of selling it into the global market, local food could get a huge boost, making it more than just a niche, higher-priced commodity.

“Ultimately if the food movement isn’t a little pocket for the elite, we have to go past that,” says Newman. “We have to make it so that when you’re busy and have three kids hanging off you, you can still pull into Superstore and get high quality [local] food.”

“You’re always going to have the people going to Costco and buying 10 frozen dinners for $10, heavily processed and full of pesticides. We’re going to have that for quite a while yet, but we need to start squeezing it. It can’t just be the elite that eat well. That’s not the world that I want, and I don’t think many people do.”