The vulnerabilities of a long food supply chain have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic as people across the world go hungry while farmers are forced to toss out their yields. But the bleak paradox is an opportunity for startups such as Revolution Agriculture that are reimagining how and where food is grown.
Founded by a former intelligence specialist for the U.S. Navy, Revolution Agriculture will soon launch a direct-to-consumer grocery delivery business in Tacoma, Wash., that sells produce grown in backyards and on other surplus land in the community. The company plans to partner with grocery delivery services including Instacart and Postmates to distribute its produce to customers.
Revolution Agriculture will rent space from landowners in the cities it serves and manage cultivation of the “farmlets.” Hosts receive a portable, greenhouse-like facility from Revolution Agriculture that enables produce to be grown year-round. The smallest greenhouse takes up the space of a standard parking spot and the largest is 540 square feet.
“There’s about 23.5 million Americans that live in food deserts, or places where grocery stores don’t exist within 10 miles,” said Revolution CEO and founder Richard Brion. “If we bring food closer to them, they’re then getting access to more secure, better food.”
Brion’s interest in agriculture dates back to his career with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan. He was tasked with finding farmers who were growing opium poppies as part of a counter-narcotics mission.
“They were just growing something that was making them money,” Brion said. “That was the catalyzing idea of, how do we find a way to give them something that they can grow that can make them money and that also handles some of those environmental and other constraints?”
The experience sowed the seeds for Revolution Agriculture, but the political and economic realities on the ground made it too difficult for them to germinate. It wasn’t until years later, after working as a consultant in the U.S., that Brion returned to the idea.
After three years developing the greenhouse prototype, Revolution is preparing to launch in its first market. The company plans to expand beyond Tacoma based on demand. Revolution has four employees and its self-funded. Other team members include James Kaminsky, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was previously in leadership roles at RPM International and Sherwin Williams; Michael Eberhardt, a former manager at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies; and Michael Fish.
Revolution is one of several companies that have cropped up with novel ways to provide healthy food to underserved communities and reduce the distance groceries travel from farm to consumer. The agriculture startup trend is emerging as the coronavirus pandemic exposes weak links in the large food chain that feeds most of the country.
Related: As local farmers embrace technology, coronavirus crisis could change our relationship to food forever
In the early days of the pandemic, grocery store shelves stood empty as farmers dumped out entire harvests of crops and ranchers were forced to euthanize thousands of animals. Weeks later, COVID-19 outbreaks in tightly packed meat processing facilities led to closures and shortages. Meanwhile, overrun food banks reported long lines as millions of Americans found themselves suddenly out of work.
Corporate consolidation has created a food system largely controlled by just a handful of companies. Their efforts to make supply chains more efficient also make it difficult for farms built to feed large commercial operations pivot to serve individual consumers.
Revolution Agriculture believes that many of those challenges can be addressed by locating small farms in the neighborhoods that they serve.