Alumni in the Wild: Smallhold Pioneers Distributed Farming, Starting with Mushrooms
FoodBytes! alumni Smallhold is the first and only organic mushroom farm in New York City, but here’s the real kicker – it’s not in any one place. Their distributed farming model means produce can be grown right inside restaurants and grocery stores – a game changing enterprise that’s already working a treat in places like Mission Chinese and Whole Foods.
We interviewed the founders Adam DeMartino and Andrew Carter and are thrilled to share their interview as our first FoodBytes! Alumni in the Wild installment. We chat with Adam and Andrew about creating a demand for their “works of agricultural art,” democratizing urban farming and how agtech innovations can and should resonate with consumers.
Can you tell us a bit about Smallhold and how it’s disrupting the agriculture industry?
Smallhold didn’t emerge as a result of our love for mushrooms. It came from the realization that farming, a skill traditionally passed down the generations, has gone through enormous change in the last 30-years. As a practice it’s generating renewed interest from people with good intentions, but no farming experience or technical know-how. Smallhold helps those people bring their vision to life in a meaningful way and takes farming into towns, cities and everyday places, where it simply wasn’t considered before.
How have you developed your business model since pitching at FoodBytes! San Francisco in 2017?
To distribute agriculture on a commercial scale, we created a standardized farming enclosure with technology that guides the farmer and collects data to inform future efficiency. It doesn’t sound like a feast for the eyes, but the beauty of these enclosures is that they sit comfortably next to diners and shoppers as living, breathing works of agricultural art – making great talking points and giving a nod to how seriously the business takes traceability and sustainability.
Our plan was to get a few well-placed mini farms up and running across the NYC metro area, connect with restaurants and key partners, and eventually talk to large retailers. Retailers came knocking almost immediately however, which meant rethinking the target customer and accelerating our sales process much earlier than we planned, so we could scale at the pace we needed to. We now count Wholefoods and Mission Chinese among our valued clients, and we work with some of the most talented chefs in New York.
You’re a B2B agtech company with a story to tell. How do you get your mission and message to resonate with customers and do you think it’s important for other upstream tech startups to do the same?
From day one, we agreed our brand personality should reflect us as people. We wanted to see ourselves and our beliefs in the Smallhold brand story, and we’re pleased that’s resonating so well with our customers. Our farms are installed in the restaurants and businesses work with, and we want to be hands-on, so there’s lots of collaboration on menus and installations to help showcase the product in bold, innovative ways.
The combination of having such a novel product, the level of relationship building we invest in and the type of clients we attract, has generated a wealth of press in lifestyle and industry-based publications. You can’t buy that kind of brand value or the advocacy it creates. A mission or message that consumers can get behind personally will always resonate more, which is something every agtech and food tech startup should think about at the outset.
What have been your biggest challenges, and how have you worked to overcome them?
We’ve always had to be very creative with space. It’s a common problem for New York startups, where the right space can be hard to find and budget for. We started the business in a basement, upgraded to a shipping container shorter after, moved on to a dirty warehouse and we’re currently in a three-story complex. Despite all these moves, we still don’t have enough space to grow at the rate we’re forecasting, so it’s an ongoing battle. Finding experienced farmers in New York City isn’t easy either, so we spend a lot of time searching for people with the right skills and growing talent.
Smallhold sits at the intersection of many growing trends (organic farming, traceability,local production and customer engagement).What does the future of retail food and dining look like to you?
The desire to get fresh food to diner’s plates faster, is still the biggest driver behind our business. Within 12-months of presenting at FoodBytes! in San Francisco, consumer demand required a distribution solution that allowed us to maintain freshness while ticking all the boxes you’ve mentioned.
Today, we ship living produce across the world with the same efficiency as large-scale farmed products, but with zero shelf life. We’ve merged technical innovation and customer experience to create sustainable mushroom farms and a profitable business. Our installations are talking points in every business they operate in, inspiring conversations about agriculture from regular consumers and creating a new appreciation for farm-fresh food. That’s a lot of wins for retail food in anyone’s book, and we believe it has helped move the dial in a new and positive direction.