Farm-to-Phone Apps Have Surged During the Pandemic. Will They Stay Once It's Safe to Return to the Grocery Store?

Juliet Bennett Rylah
Juliet Bennett Rylah is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous local and national outlets. She's passionate about public transit, affordable housing and horror movies. You can find her on Twitter @jbrylah.
Farm-to-Phone Apps Have Surged During the Pandemic. Will They Stay Once It's Safe to Return to the Grocery Store?

Sarah Hernandez is a full-time farmer, though she doesn't own a huge farm.

She grows microgreens, among other vegetables and herbs, in her yard in La Mirada. Microgreens, bite-sized version of larger veggies, don't require much space; Hernandez grows them vertically on 10x20 flats stacked on wooden shelves. She visits four farmers markets each week, then delivers microgreen boxes straight to customers who find her on CropSwap.

The app offers a farm-to-phone marketplace, connecting consumers directly to farmers. It's one of several services that have taken hold during the pandemic, allowing consumers who would otherwise go to farmers markets or grocery stores to get fresh produce or other goods delivered. CropSwap is also making it easier for some home-based growers to tap into the gig economy and sell within their communities.

CEO Rob Reiner co-founded the app with Daniel McCollister. The way Reiner tells it, they seem like an unlikely pair. Reiner grew up in Houston, studied computer science, and moved to NYC with the dream of being a Wall Street broker. There, he worked in software startups, but didn't find himself attached to a project that felt like a challenge.

Then he met McCollister in 2017, who invited him to see his gardens in Woodland Hills filled with an array of produce — kale, Brussels sprouts, onions, garlic, beans, tomatoes and more.

"I had believed you needed 100 acres to grow food, and here was Dan, showing me one acre that was growing more food than an entire neighborhood could consume," Reiner said.

McCollister wanted an easy way to sell or donate his food to his community — like a Craigslist or Offer Up for produce — so that's what the pair built. Their first version of CropSwap launched in 2017 and saw some 7,500 people selling or bartering various produce in the L.A. area alone. Got an orange tree? Put the fruit on CropSwap.

Screenshots of CropSwap's platform.

But Reiner found early on that users would often buy a bunch of oranges one week, but the next week, they'd go back to Whole Foods.

"There wasn't an understanding that the farmer was there to stay and could continually give you that produce," he said.

To attract both consistent consumers and — also key — investors, Reiner pivoted the app. Its goal became to teach people used to visiting chain grocery stores about local food systems and how to tap into them. He scaled back the bartering component of the app, though users can still trade messages with farmers.

"I could have a million users on CropSwap, but if I'm not attacking the WalMart consumer and the WalMart consumer is still buying [Walmart's] produce, then I haven't done my job," he said.

In 2019, CropSwap started offering curated boxes of seasonal, local produce that customers could receive right after it was harvested. Reiner described it as a hybrid consumer-supported agriculture ( CSA) box. Customers can subscribe to them or get a one-off. All farmers have to do is curate the boxes, put them on the app, and fulfill sales.

"We give farmers the tool to create their own delivery options," Reiner said. "They can do it all themselves and sell direct to consumers."

Customers who download the app can browse what's available in their area for either pickup or delivery. Farmers drop pins to indicate five-mile radiuses where they deliver, usually on specific days of the week.

One might be inclined to think that farmers markets would be CropSwap's biggest competitor, but Reiner said it's actually other apps such as Barn2Door and subscription services like San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce or Sacramento-based Farm Fresh to You.

Unlike those services, which use third-parties to box and handle deliveries, CropSwap farmers box their own food and the same farmhands who picked the produce are often the ones who deliver it.

In Los Angeles, the largest farm on the app is Sow a Heart, which also owns Sage Plant-Based Bistro with locations throughout the county. On CropSwap, they offer a Family Harvest box jammed with produce for $55, including delivery fees. By comparison, a Whole Foods cart on Amazon Prime that contains roughly the same items comes out to about $85, not including tip.

CropSwap does not charge sellers to be on the platform as others, including Seattle-based Barn2Door, do. Instead, it takes 8% of sales — in line with what a farmers market might charge — once a seller reaches 50 subscribers. Reiner said they're able to keep consumer costs low because they're not spending money on storage facilities, branding, marketing or transit.

From Consumer to Micro-Farmer

Hernandez had been following CropSwap on social media because she was interested in potentially trading her seeds for other produce. About six months ago, CropSwap reached out to ask her if she'd like to sell on the app. So far, she said "a good amount" of people have tried her variety microgreens box and she's gotten a lot of useful feedback. She currently has about 10 regular subscribers, a number that fluctuates with customer needs. Some are weekly buyers, while some purchase every other week. Hernandez said CropSwap is the most direct farmer-to-consumer experience she's had apart from the actual farmers market.

"I make the deliveries myself every week. My boyfriend helps me out, but it's just us two," she said "I'm growing it, we're cutting it, packaging it, and we're delivering it."

Through the app, she can tell her customers if she needs to change delivery dates to accommodate her market schedule or travel plans. Customers can also ask her questions, just like they would at the farmers market. If she gets more subscribers, she has space to add another set of shelves and she'd be able to hire an employee to help package and deliver produce.

There are other small vendors, too, like a beekeeper in West L.A. who sells honey flights, a jam maker in East Hollywood, and more home microgreen growers like Hernandez. Reiner said there are about 250 subscribers in L.A. Some get just one box, but some larger vegetarian or vegan families may purchase up to five.

The direct-to-consumer approach has served as a boon for some farmers during the pandemic. In Richmond, Virginia, Three Fox Farms' founder Alex King told RVA Magazine he didn't know what to do with his crops after restaurants and farmers markets closed at the onset of the pandemic. King ultimately partnered with Leafy Lanes Urban Farms to offer a box of assorted fresh vegetables, which they sold on CropSwap. They were so successful, the farmers said, they had one of their strongest seasons and King was able to invest in new hoop houses and a walk-in cooler.

Hernandez also had a good year saleswise. She said she found her customers wanted to eat healthier and appreciated the contact-free delivery experience CropSwap could provide.

Beyond the Pandemic

Reiner doesn't think pandemic subscriptions are a fluke, though he has had investors who question that. Still, he's betting the quality of fresh, local produce delivered straight to consumers will "ruin" them for inferior fruits and vegetables that have to be stored in a warehouse. Plus, he said, some CropSwap growers offer products that are hard to get in stores. For example, a farmer who specializes in iron-rich kale for vegan bodybuilders.

Rob Reiner, CoCropSwap CEO Rob Reiner

In its next iteration, Reiner plans to partner with chefs to make the boxes more of an experience by offering recipes and cook-alongs. CropSwap is also working on a partnership with Nourish LA to offer customers the ability to donate boxes to other families. Reiner also envisions a tracking system that lets customers know how their purchases will impact their health, environment, and communities and a future where CropSwap could make suggestions to make its customers healthier.

"Imagine if we knew your intake because of the product you were consuming," he said. "If I knew, for example, that you were low on iron, I could start suggesting boxes that might increase your iron."

CropSwap has also partnered with Jamiah Hargins' Crop Swap LA, founded in 2018 to allow Angelenos to share produce. Crop Swap LA is building new neighborhood gardens in West Adams. The produce they yield will be available on the CropSwap app, and neighbors will receive a code to become the urban farms' first subscribers.

"People are going to start seeing how much food can come from local gardens. And that's going to start deteriorating the mindset that you need so much land to grow food," Reiner said. "I would love it if kids could get involved in this and tell their parents I'm going to turn my whole backyard into selling food for my neighbors."

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Undergoing Some Growing Pains at a Pivotal Moment in Its Development
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Rivian CEO Teases R2, New Features in Instagram AMA

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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