A side order of software aims to help small-scale producers

Shanika Abeysinghe co-founded Bessie with university friends Spencer Kerber (middle) and Alex Leakos as a way to get naturally raised meat delivered directly to customers’ front doors. Now, they want to make it easier for other producers to do the same.

A local ag-tech startup wants to make it easier for small-scale farmers to connect with — and sell to — their customers.

“We’re empowering farmers to go direct or go to wholesale and giving them more tools to do so because of some of the stuff we’ve seen through COVID,” said Shanika Abeysinghe, co-founder of Bessie.

“Food prices have inflated so much, and who benefits from it? It’s the Cargills and the JBSs of the world. It isn’t the farmers, at the end of the day.

“That’s something that our team is trying to find a way to work around.”

The Calgary company, which started in 2019, sells naturally raised Alberta beef and poultry, as well as sustainably sourced seafood, mostly in ‘boxes’ (ranging from $75 to $259) that are delivered to customers’ doors. The goal was to make the supply chain simpler, reduce the cost of getting food from producer to customer and leave more money on the table for food producers.

“Farmers do not get paid enough — especially the ones who are doing it right,” said Abeysinghe, who co-founded the company with university friends Alex Leakos and Spencer Kerber.

“They aren’t getting paid what they should be for premium cuts of grass-finished beef.”

At every step of the supply chain, “someone needs to get paid,” she noted.

“And it’s not the farmer. They end up losing money at every single step.”

Abeysinghe and her partners saw the answer as they were building their e-commerce business and all of the tech that went alongside it.

“We recognized that a lot of that software could be used by these farms to help them go direct themselves,” she said. “As much as we want to shorten that supply chain — and we have, from nine steps to three — there’s still an opportunity to shorten it even more and give farmers even more margin.”

The software, which is expected to be released in the coming months, streamlines inventory, customer communications, and order fulfilment so that farmers and food-service providers can manage their direct-to-consumer business all in one spot.

“It makes it really easy for someone to place an order online through an online portal and then have that farm or business manage it all through the internal chain right up to delivery,” she said.

The software will also make it easier for producers to connect directly with their customers, no matter where they are.

“With the software that we have, it makes it easier for those connections to be built,” said Abeysinghe. “It makes it feel more personal, and people want that nowadays. It’s less about ordering from an online business and more about having a conversation. It really builds that connection beyond just placing an order.”

The Bessie team is in the first phase of its pilot project with the software, talking to producers and food-service providers about how the tool could best support them. The hope is to offer a free version and then scale up from there.

“They’re doing things the right way, so how can we support these people in our own backyard? How can we structure a system that’s a little bit better for them?”

That will make the software more accessible for a larger number of small producers — the people who might need an extra hand reaching their customers.

And that, said Abeysinghe, is better for everyone in the food system.

“We have these farmers who are doing things the right way, who are being innovative and really thinking about the environment — why aren’t they being paid for doing all these great things?” she said.

“If we can create more opportunity for local farmers to get to market, we create more competition, and in the end, the consumer gets a better product.

“By changing the food system, it’s not only good for the farmer — it’s also good for the consumer.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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