A Glimpse at Going Against the Grain

My grain farm is unusual in a globalized, commodity grain-dominated industry for many reasons, which means I often need to create my own infrastructure or get creative with what’s at hand. This starts with how I acquire seed, through how I farm, and all the way to the customer. That sentence hardly captures the complexity of component parts that I haven’t the time to share because I am dealing with those component parts! But, today, I’ll shine a light on one element: the online sales platform.

I provide Flour Shares that involve a one-time payment for monthly packages of freshly milled flour over six months. This is similar to the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, except true CSAs are purchased before the planting season begins in order to cover all the costs of farming. What’s more common now among diversified fruit and vegetable operations are subscription boxes wherein people pay monthly for weekly.

Online sales platforms assume of two things: a sale is associated with a one-time shipment or with a subscription that needs to be renewed. The first is rather ubiquitous in the US since the pandemic, and are oriented towards shipment. If any in-store acquisition happens, the platform assumes that is because the customer went into the shop that is the point of sale. This type of platform isn’t ideal for me because I have multiple pick-up sites, which I’m not able to list (It assumes there’s only one store, and you have to show proof that you’re the store owner, which I’m not.) Additionally, I have to choose between whether I will list share type or pick-up location as the variable during purchase. Since share type is associated with cost, which is relevant to the check-out process, I list that. Pick-up locations, then, are manually assigned based on their address…for over 200 customers! It’s not so easy as correlating an address with a pick-up site. Perhaps a resident of Los Angeles works in Santa Monica or regularly drives to their parents in Pasadena. So, there’s a process of assigning and confirming.

Why not ship? Shipping involves purchasing packaging materials, doing the packaging, and dealing with lost packages during an epic strain on delivery systems, to say the least.

Back to online platforms and their second assumption, the subscription model accommodates much of these and more products, but costs three times as much as the other kind of platform each month. And I don’t need the service for more than a couple months out of the year. Those numbers make a big difference for a business of my size.

Between the two types of platforms, I use the former. The benefit is that it’s simple and relatively more affordable. The negatives, in addition to what I mentioned, is that I must go through a long business validation process each time I make the store live. Questions include where I get my product from, evidence of procurement, documentation of shipping, etc. The platform assumes that a farmer–the ultimate source–isn’t using this tool. I also can’t get paid out for the purchases until I confirm that the sale has been fulfilled. This is tricky because I need the money before all six shares have been picked-up, but the orders technically aren’t fulfilled for six months. What happened recently was that I indicated that all orders were fulfilled in order to be paid, so the platform notified all the Flour Share customers that their purchase is being shipped! (If you are a Flour Share customer, please ignore the Shopify email!) You know that feeling when you said you’d send an attachment in a high-stakes communication, but you forgot the attachment. It’s that same feeling, but from the opposite action!

While we clearly need a different food system, we need to be available to build all the structures to support it. Reach out if you want to create an app for me/us :).