A Bulgarian startup aims to reconfigure financing for farmers by connecting small farmers with supporters around the world.
Farming is a creative practice with a final product more spectacular than anything manmade: fresh produce, delicious meat, fragrant flowers, and a well cared for landscape. So in the social media age, when people are willing to donate money in support of a stranger’s creativity through platforms like Kickstarter, it makes sense to try to extend that generosity to the world of agriculture, allowing people to give to small farms whose missions they support.
Enter Farmhopping, a website launching next month that intends to create a new framework for financing small-scale farming by connecting farms with backers who pay a small sum to invest in a farm for rewards, like shipments of cheese, and a say in how the farm is managed. In its use of technology in support of foodie-ism, Farmhopping sounds positively Californian, but the surprising part of the project has less to do with its concept and more to do with its home-base of Bulgaria, a country not exactly known for its startup scene.
Farmhopping is the brainchild of recent business school graduate Rossi Mitova, a 25-year-old extreme skier and self-proclaimed “city girl” who only recently fell for the charms of the countryside. "A friend of mine bought some animals on a farm in Bulgaria and started taking care of them," she tells me. "We started visiting the farm and getting freshmade yogurt and milking the animals and stuff."
With a bit of fresh air in her lungs and dairy in her belly, Mitova was hooked. She figured other people who lack ready access to the countryside would be interested in forming a direct relationship with a small farm as well and began plotting for Farmhopping, using Farm Perun in Kresna, Bulgaria—the one introduced to Mitova by her friend—as a guinea pig.
It wasn’t easy to explain the concept to the farmer Todor Georgiev, who runs Perun. Fanatical about protecting Bulgaria’s endangered heritage breeds—including Karakachan sheep and long-haired mountain goats—he’s less connected to the latest internet trends. "He’s not at all digitally savvy. It takes him, like, an hour to take upload and send us some pictures." Also tricky was explaining concepts like "crowdfunding" and "collaborative consumption" to a farmer from the old school, but according to Mitova, Georgiev is really excited, not just for the "finances but also about connecting with people around the world."
Georgiev’s farm will be Farmhopping’s test run and will let supporters pay 20 pounds upfront plus a monthly fee to "buy" a sheep and decide whether the animal should be used for milking or to help expand the herd. It's an important decision on a farm whose mission is to make dairy but also to increase the ranks of endangered heritage breeds. (Animals that get milked produce less offspring, says Mitova). For the farmer, the financial incentive has to add up to make ceding some control to the public worthwhile, but if the idea catches on, the potential for revenue is huge (Perun plans to put 250 sheep up "for sale.") Other rewards would include a box of cheese that could be shipped anywhere in Europe, the chance to stay overnight on the farm, or regular produce shipments for people living close by.
Mitova says some people have compared the idea to "Farmville but with real animals," but she frowns at the suggestion. "We don’t want to just make entertainment," she says. "We want to make people part of a community, part of a lifestyle." And unlike an entertaininment platform, Farmhopping poses real solutions to cash-flow problems for small farmers.
The next farms to be included in the platform will be a water buffalo farm that produces authentic mozzarella and another farm that keeps sheep and bees. The eventual goal is to create a list with farms from around the world that reflect different concerns, whether protecting heritage breeds or permaculture. "We’ll have to visit each farm and make sure that the farm is a good match for us, that we are a good match for a farm, that they’re taking care of the animal in a sustainable way." It's a hugely ambitious project for a young entreprneur—or for anyone, really—but Mitova doesn’t seem to mind.