Julia Niiro has a mission: to build a food supply chain that connects small farmers directly with consumers.
After becoming a small farmer in Portland, Oregon, Niiro founded MilkRun in 2018. It is a subscription service that delivers weekly groceries staples from local small farms.
After purchasing a meat-processing business, she was working with local ranchers. She learned that over 85% of farmers were over 65 and were being asked to increase food production as people age. However, they only made 10 cents per dollar.
TechCrunch spoke to her about how the model aims to increase profits and help small farmers buy more goods. People buy direct from the farm and then have the goods delivered, similar to the traditional milkman model. The next wave in the food industry will focus on reducing the middle.
In 2020, the company experienced a 15x increase in sales. To keep this momentum going, MilkRun raised $6M in Series A financing. Spark Capital was the lead investor and was joined by Congruent VC, Social Impact Capital, Revolutions Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and Social Impact Capital. Niiro stated that the latest infusion brings the company a total of 10 million. This includes money raised from Techstars and Y Combinator 2020.
MilkRun will be able to expand its delivery service in Seattle and Austin, as well as a fourth market that is yet to be named. The company will also launch new products. MilkRun recently launched a new bacon product as part of its subscription service. They are also working with butchers in order to provide different cuts and styles. The company has also been in contact with Pacific Northwest seafood suppliers and will use the funds to expand its seafood markets.
MilkRun works with more than 300 small and medium-sized farms. You can order the products you want online, including eggs, meat, produce, and bread. The company offers a recurring subscription with no minimum order, subscription fees or delivery charges. Niiro stated that fifty percent of every dollar spent is returned to farmers.
One of her favorite things about starting the service in 2019 was learning alongside farmers. MilkRun recognizes that farmers have a high opportunity cost as they grow their purchasing power. It has been a partnership game since the beginning as MilkRun worked through the long list to find the right farmers to work with. She also added that MilkRun is working quickly to integrate them into the subscription service and build the infrastructure.
Niiro stated that there has been a tipping point and a need for local food for years. However, this chain has been broken. It's time to shift the balance back towards sustainability that is based on small- and medium-sized farmers. We are increasing awareness of the possibility to rebuild these systems as well as the direct world commerce by raising commodity prices to meet food demand.
Niiro said that she was also excited to welcome Spark Capital as the leader, referring to the venture fund as a true backer for big visions. The company is still in its infancy as it works to activate the entire network of small farmers and become the largest farmer market in the country.
Spark Capital's general partner Kevin Thau said that this mission was one of the main reasons they invested in MilkRun. He said that Spark is attracted by consumer plays but Thau initially was a stronghold on grocery ordering, even though more people are ordering food online due to the global pandemic.
He is a self-described picky customer, and he has had negative experiences with food delivery services. This led him to embrace the farmers' market and drive to the country to find good basic food.
Thau stated that most people buy the same grocery staples every week. Therefore, rather than searching through thousands of SKUs, MilkRun works to make it easy for consumers to find what they are looking for online.
MilkRun follows the trend of simplifying so people can choose less. However, the choice is highly curated. Julia is a remarkable storyteller with great vision and passion. Her unique approach to starting a technology company is another highlight. We can all relate to her passion for local farmers and her vision of the future. As they become more aware of sustainability and climate change, people want to support local businesses and farms.