A Growing Appetite - App is a Farmer's Market Online
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Posted by: Jeff Couture
Source: Essex Reporter
Emir Heco believes he might have a solution for local food lovers saddened by news of the Five Corners Farmers’ Market’s postponement.
“This is kind of like a farmers’ market online,” Heco said last Friday as he pointed to his phone, which showed a tiny, one-eyed carrot sitting under the name, “rootMonger.”
Food offerings popped up on the screen moments later, the modest beginnings of Heco’s newest creation: an app connecting consumers with local growers and sellers.
The idea sparked last year during one of Heco Engineering’s brainstorming sessions that Heco, the company’s founder, describes as time to consider problems “that need solving.” The answer seemed obvious to Heco’s employee, Semir Rizvanovic, who recently drove to New Hampshire in a dire search for a specific type of peppers.
So Heco mined his growing network at Excelerate Essex, where he linked up with software engineer Dan Johnston to create an alpha version of the app. They tested it with a select audience to work through the initial bugs.
Since rolling out the beta version, Heco’s goal is convincing farmers to join.
It’s a straight-forward process; food growers upload their produce menu, add a photo and set their prices. Users can then find a list of nearby offerings, which they can purchase right on the app.
From there, farmers and vendors have three choices: deliver to the buyer, set a drop-off location or allow for pick-up. The key ingredient? Efficiency.
“That’s the No. 1 currency these days: time,” Heco said. “If you can find a way to save somebody a half an hour a day, that’s awesome.”
Additionally, he hopes the app helps Essex regain access to fresh, local food by addressing workload, one of the market’s biggest challenges.
“This,” he said, pointing to his phone, “is not a lot of work.”
Heco and his team are still waiting on rootMonger to gain some traction. He expects a big jump this spring but has already set some lofty goals.
He envisions a feature that uses grocery lists to curate offerings from a large database of farmers. The app could also create a Yelp-like system, so those delicious zucchinis from down the road can catch a five-star rating.
“We want to reward farmers that are doing it the right way,” Heco said.
He hopes rootMonger eventually makes its data useful, looking at local trends to suggest what types of produce farmers should grow.
A final goal is establishing community fridges, or vending machines, Heco said, pointing to systems in Japan as inspiration.
It’s still early, however, and the next step — getting growers, sellers and buyers on to the app — is the most important, since if people don’t find what they’re looking for, they’re unlikely to come back, Heco said.
The response has been mixed thus far. Some small health food stores pushed back, stating their whole purpose is to get to know their customers.
“That’s great, and you may have a few of those customers that you really get to know,” Heco said. “But you’re missing out on this whole other population that doesn’t have time to come into your produce section and browse. They want to know what to get and where to get it.”
Established farmers are also wary of the app, Heco said, uninterested in such a major shift in their practices. But new famers are more receptive, some even suggesting he reach out to restaurants to help connect chefs with local food growers.
It’s not just full-time producers who Heco imagines using rootMonger; any backyard green thumb can advertise their food on the app, he said.
“That pound of tomatoes you grew? This is how you sell it.” Heco said. “We have to introduce more young people into growing. This app may be a way to do that.”
People can even purchase freshly prepared meals, whether from an established business or right from their own neighbors.
And while the app fills the farmers’ market’s void, Heco said the two can exist in harmony as well. For example, food vendors and farmers who travel long distances could better prepare for the haul by pre-selling on the app and setting the market as their pick-up location.
It’s part of why, after moving to Essex in 1996, that Heco stayed put: Vermonters are always willing to connect and collaborate. Though technology seems to test these traits more and more, apps like rootMonger can reverse the trend, he said.
“This is my home,” he said. “Twenty, 30 years from now, I hope that I’m here and see these systems grow and be sustainable.”