Alfrea, a company based in Linwood, New Jersey, is trying to extend the sharing economy to garden spaces. The company was founded in 2016 as an online marketplace for renting land and finding farm hands for hire. Alfrea has since expanded to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Frederick, Maryland. The company has plans to expand nationwide. The website also has as a farmers’ market platform which allows farmers to sell produce at any time.
For those who live in cities and want to grow food, but lack land, Alfrea facilitates relationships with people who have available plots of land and those who have surplus crops can also sell them on the website. There are three types of Alfrea memberships to use these services, ranging from free to US$15 per month. Visitors to the site can also learn how to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways.
Food Tank had the opportunity to ask David Wagstaff, the company’s founder, about Alfrea’s past, present, and future in the sustainable food movement. This startup wants to give all people access to local, sustainably grown food.
Food Tank (FT): What motivated you to start Alfrea and advocate for locally grown, sustainable food?
David Wagstaff (DW): My parents own a 30-acre farm, but at 92 and 86 years old, it is hard for them to manage. As they have aged, I have taken a more active role in managing the farm, as well as their financial affairs and health decisions. I began to ponder my parents’ health, and in turn, my own. In early 2015, I immersed myself in research on how to have high-quality senior years. I read multiple books, watched several movies, met with various health experts, and even hired a fitness coach. All the research pointed to the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and reducing processed foods. The standard American diet has been tied to common health problems such as heart disease, dementia, Type-2 Diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Further, food purchased at grocery stores is often processed with high sugar, fat, and severely lacking vital phytonutrients.
Surprisingly, as I conducted research, I found that agriculture is linked to environmental degradation and climate change. Food production produces 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses. Methane, a byproduct of many agricultural processes, has a heat trapping index 23-times higher than carbon dioxide and food travels an average of over 1,500 miles from farm to table.
During this time, I was trying to find people that would be willing to grow food on my parents’ land or lease out a portion of it, but it was harder than I thought. When I attempted to grow food in my own yard, the same problems persisted. Even when I turned to farmer’s markets, they were usually only open one day a week during the growing season and not always at convenient times.
Through my experiences, I discovered the sustainable food movement has no central hub for people to participate. Overall, the idea for Alfrea arose from my desire to eat healthily, protect the environment, and unify others who think like me.
FT: Has connecting gardeners and eaters with land, help, and food producers been easier or harder than anticipated?
DW: That’s an easy question—definitely more challenging. It takes a lot of effort to get the word out. With that said, part of the reason why Alfrea exists is that people express much excitement about this concept. Even before launching the actual website, I was in a grocery store, and one of the clerks overheard me discussing Alfrea. After that, the clerk came up to me and said he wanted to hug me in the middle of the grocery store because he was thrilled about Alfrea’s vision. That same week, a well-known environmentalist in California who rarely gets excited about many businesses was ecstatic about Alfrea. He has held positions as a board member of organizations such as Oceana, Marine Sanctuaries, and Green Peace. Both of these interactions gave me the courage to pursue the idea further.
FT: How does Alfrea plan to motivate more Americans to utilize its website’s garden share, farmers’ market, and other online community resources?
DW: In every way, we know how. Public relations, social media, content writers, community events, and attending farm conferences will all further our cause. We intend to mainly have a business-to-business approach, offering Alfrea as an amenity to apartment communities and as a corporate employee benefit.
All of us here are excited because Alfrea breaks into a substantial market. Right now, 56 million Americans live in apartment communities and currently don’t have immediate access to grow their own food. All of those people can use Alfrea to find land to grow food or find others in their community to grow food for them.
FT: What are some of the shared benefits for farmers and customers renting land, getting hired for service, or buying produce through Alfrea?
DW: The upside of utilizing Alfrea is massive. For consumers, Alfrea makes it easy to grow and eat local, sustainable food. Studies show that when people grow their own food, they tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is beneficial for their overall wellbeing.
Landowners also profit in a big way. As Airbnb, Inc. did for bedrooms, Alfrea intends to do for property, farmland, and even backyards. Our vision is simple; people can earn extra income by offering land to consumers. With traditional methods, the average annual rental rate for farmland is about US$150 a year per acre. Leveraging Alfrea, landowners can subdivide the land to share with multiple growers and potentially earn more than US$3,000 a year per acre! Plus, in some areas, people gain additional tax reductions for using their property for agricultural purposes.
For farm hands and skilled gardeners, Alfrea generates more opportunities for them to earn extra income. Alfrea intends to pay these laborers with an Uber-like program. While over one million people work on farms today, it is virtually impossible to find someone to help you grow crops in your backyard. Alfrea connects this fragmented market by connecting income-seeking gardeners with those who want fresh food grown on their property.
According to the National Farm Workers Ministry, the average income for crop workers ranges from US$10,000 to US$12,499. With Alfrea, these laborers can set their own rate and are asking anywhere between US$15 and US$20 an hour. In other words, people working independently through Alfrea can make more than double the national average for farm workers.
Lastly, farmers looking to sell food benefit financially and from a convenience standpoint. Farmers usually sell to wholesalers who earn 40 to 50 percent of the produce’s market price. However, Alfrea charges farmers only 12 percent. This reduction means farmers will see an income increase and reduced time spent contacting wholesalers. Plus, Alfrea’s website gives farmers the option to opt out of sitting at farmer’s markets for hours at a time.
FT: Does Alfrea plan to leverage Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer, as the company expands across the country?
DW: Yes, we believe Alfrea can be a central hub to unite the fragmented CSA marketplace. In our experience, it is not easy to find extensive lists of local CSAs. Alfrea’s website makes geographic searching easy.
FT: What are some of Alfrea’s goals for the future, besides expanding to more cities?
DW: We would like to create a mobile app. Today, we are mobile-friendly but do not have an Android or Apple app for members to use.
We look forward to having more customers on the website. Analytics will help us learn how to serve their needs best. We have conducted some customer surveys and interviews, but as we grow, we want to make sure we are meeting the needs of farmers and consumers.
Another key strategy for us will be expanding access. We want to reach affluent consumers as well as consumers that may not be able to afford fresh foods and reach people who live in food deserts. Our team is still working out the details how to achieve this goal well, but all of us at Alfrea are optimistic about the future.