Origin Club — Changing the way we grow and trade food in Europe

Marcus Letts
Jun 21, 2017 · 17 min read

Or “#4 ways to co-create a more open and democratic food system in Central Greece.”

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Hello.

I’m Marcus and in late 2016 my young family and I relocated to the Aegean island region of North Evia to lead on the development of Transform Evia and Origin Club startups.

This is a story about Origin Club, the collaborative trade platform and network that we’re building and planting here in Central Greece. It’s a work-in-progress — both the storytelling and the startup — so I hope you catch my drift. If you like it, please share it, and if you have any questions or suggestions, go ahead and feedback in the comments below — or jump into this Google Doc and co-edit along with our team.

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What on Earth?

Truly, these are crazy days.

We live in a world of structural impoverishment on the grandest scale imaginable. And yet — day-in, day-out — we actively participate in a socioeconomic order of things which further privileges the interests of an already hyper-privileged few. Relentlessly.

We live within a planetary ecosystem which is now displaying early signals of runaway collapse. And yet our collective appetite for extractive and degenerative consumption of finite resources continues to grow apace, year upon year. Compulsively.

So let’s take five and consider again the basics. How do we “do a Bucky” and build the new model that makes the old one obsolete? By which we’re really asking — how do we move beyond vague commitments and hollowed out rhetoric towards tangible system change on a bioregional scale? Let’s not kid ourselves, the problem is not that we don’t know the answer to these questions. In 2017, the problem is that we don’t agree that these are even the right questions. And all the while the doomsday clock is ticking.

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“To change something, build a new model which makes the existing one obsolete” — Bucky Fuller

Let’s get to the point.

Origin Club believes that what really counts in today’s fast fragmenting world is new narratives and frames. We consider what is truly deficient to be no longer technology, strategies or trainings but rather effective storytelling — both radical enough to change the way the world works and yet accessible enough to inspire practical, real world outcomes. As pioneering regenerative agriculturalist Mark Shepard sums up nicely, the way we grow and trade food is as good a place as any to start work on this most critical design challenge of our time. Because when it comes to food, we’ve all got skin in the game.

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So tell us. What is Origin Club?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Origin Club is framed here as an iterative design challenge with massive and transformative purpose, integrative of any stakeholder with a genuine interest in our ideas and our business activity. Origin Club is therefore less a product with a snappy elevator pitch, and more a process which inspires lasting and committed relationships with it’s stakeholder community. We seek to change the way we grow and trade food in Europe, starting with the rapid prototyping of on-the-ground solutions, mostly embedded within a single bioregion of Central Greece.

We truly believe that great storytelling — with a pinch of social media marketing — can help us shift the balance of power away from online and offline super-chains and instead empower smaller farmers to fairly access a global audience. We believe this because we recognise how greater transparency and democracy will help people to make better food choices. We know that — compounded by the billion — these individual choices really can build and plant a better world. So we’re making an open invitation to the co-creators of this new and emergent field of possibility — wherever you may be in the world — as we embrace the unknown and collectively show up for love, hope and faith in something more.

The Greek word “apocalypse” refers to both an end and a beginning, directly translating as a revelation. We see the evidence of planetary collapse mounting up before our eyes, but in 2017 we possess a superabundance of knowledge about our world and, in particular, the unique historical circumstances of this convergence of contemporary crises. We therefore seek a symbiotic convergence with all that is reconciliatory and restorative in our world.

OK, but why is this happening in Central Greece?

Origin Club is our starting point — our proof of concept and pilot scheme — and we’re making a lifetime commitment to the people and place of North Evia in Central Greece. Our field of dreams is one of Europe’s most fertile and biodiverse regions in a country where — despite contemporary crises — land is relatively evenly distributed, with most young people having access to a smallholding back home in the villages.

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North Evia — our target bioregion and local municipality — is a uniquely underdeveloped paradise of mountains and beaches, rich in pine and deciduous forest, local stone, clay and arable land and only 2–3 hours from Athens, a major European hub. We seek earnestly to disrupt and reverse patterns of degenerative land-use and, by extension, an ongoing trend towards urbanisation which extractive agriculture makes possible. To state it plainly, we must go back to the land if we are to restore the world.

Where else but Greece has our collective inability to counter the dominant meta-narrative produced a deeper cynicism and distrust of the establishment and it’s institutions? So where else but Greece might we summon the collective courage to respond to this most complex of design challenges, a matrix of systemic problems which impact upon the health and well-being of each and every one of us?

Our big picture question is this — what does an optimal bioregional-scale ecosystem for regenerative culture design and applied social economics look like? Could it be possible that there is no better playground for a collective adventure into new ways of living and working than an abundant and sparsely populated Greek island paradise? We dare to dream that this is not only possible but — with each passing day, as we continue to sound a loud clarion call for North Evia — increasingly likely. We seek — unapologetically— to establish this place as a leading European hub for the better world our hearts know is possible.

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What makes us the right people?

Full disclosure: We don’t pretend we know what we’re doing.

Instead we choose to adopt an integrative and iterative process — which means we learn by doing and are always prepared to pivot. Sometimes we fail, but what’s important is that we fail fast. We hit the ground stumbling in 2016 with a £10,000 crowdfunding campaign which posed more questions than it answered. Here’s the gist of what we had in mind in those early days.

What remains of this article is evidence that we’ve held true to our core purpose, despite a mix of good and catastrophic results along the way.

And here’s the thing. Whether you love food, care deeply about people and planet, or just quite like the sound of getting to know a grassroots solidarity network on an undiscovered Greek island, Origin Club is for everyone. To state our invitation plainly, we’re not about making money or building monopolies — we’re about making the world work for 100% of humanity. If that sounds like your kind of adventure, then please reach out and say hello today.

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How does it work, technically speaking?

This next bit is a little geeky, but super important. Origin Club will be registered in late 2017 in the United Kingdom as a Co-operative Society with multi-stakeholder rules. This enables us to adopt a systems approach to governance which is genuinely open and democratic. Ahead of a £30,000 pioneer share issue in the autumn, we’re doing our best to communicate four key market-ready opportunities — briefly sketched below — for investment in the social and solidarity economy in Central Greece, and beyond.

We recognise that the socioeconomic games we play are not merely unfair but increasingly outmoded. This kind of economy — and the layers of governance which legitimate it — is powered by less sensitive and therefore less responsive organisations than we are now capable of implementing. In other words, it is a sub-optimal distortion of the healthy and abundant economy which we could design and build. The elephant in the room of modern economic theory is that capitalism is only one kind of market economya weak and fragile kind — which obstructs rational decision making and perfect competition by hyper-privileging the role of the owners of capital. There’s nothing inherently wrong with investors, but it’s impossible to deny that they only ever represent one stakeholder group of many in relation to any given economic activity. We now live in a world where genuine democracy and radical transparency is not only marginal activity for anarchists, but emergent possibility for everyone. So why don’t we fix that?

What follows is a whirlwind introduction to the four interrelated key activities Origin Club will now begin building out on Evia Island and beyond. Please keep in mind that this is a live process of applied design thinking — an integrative and iterative approach that is open to new feedback and different ideas every step of the way. So if you find your curiosity being stirred by something you read below, please act on that impulse and get in touch.

Got questions? Email marcus@oneplanet.io, or comment below.

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Origin Club applies design thinking to food trade in Europe

Origin Box — The Solidarity Hamper

This is where it all began for us, and we truly believe that Origin Boxes will prove to be an ideal marketing tool for our trade network. Think of them kind of like premium samples for small-scale and cooperative producers in rural Greece. You can buy one as a gift for your office, a friend, your local whole food store, community hub or local buying group…the possibilities are endless. And if you like anything you find in the hampers, why not jump online and start sourcing it in wholesale quantities?

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Meet Vasilis — a local olive grower for our Philos brand

One of the key insights of our 2016 campaign relates to product differentiation. Our customers wanted to know more about the people behind the produce, and also sought more consistency in these stories, so that specific hampers may be targeted to specific audiences.

With this feedback in mind, we’re planning to co-develop #4 Origin Boxes for 2017 — each with a Unique Selling Point — and will approach the following established brands with a view to becoming key partners. Let’s hope they’re all up for playing along — we can’t wait to see these products develop over the coming weeks and months.

#1 Delfini — The Original Origin Box

Delfini is a local food hub and farmer’s network for Central Greece. It is the engine which powers Origin Club’s trade network within our pilot region of Central Greece, and will play a key role in the product development and distribution of all four Origin Boxes outlined here in 2017.

We’ll take the most popular products from our 2016 edition of Christmas hampers and combine them to create one Original Origin Box for 2017 and beyond.

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#2 ENA — The Solidarity Hamper

This Origin Box is all about solidarity with our emerging network of small and co-operative producers on North Evia. Plain and simple.

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#3 Troo Food — The Whole Foods Hamper

The very best health and whole foods which Greece has to offer, handmade by people who care deeply about your body, mind and spirit, not to mention “yo mamma” — our common home, planet Earth.

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Our friends, the beautiful Troo Food family!

#4 Wise Greece — The Humanitarian Hamper

This Origin Box will focus on one of Origin Club’s key messages — directly supporting people who don’t have enough by helping ordinary people make better, more impactful everyday food choices. With this in mind, Wise Greece could be an ideal partner for Origin Club, and also a great example of how collaboration will take us much further than competition ever could. For a deep dive into the pioneering business model and outstanding produce of Wise Greece, visit their website here.

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As well as showcasing outstanding Greek produce, Origin Box will also be identified as a platform on which to catalyse further R&D related to key issues of sustainable packaging and ethical distribution. Our hope is that Origin Box can become a standard bearer for the industry in the years to come.

We recognise these complex problems, but have also learned that implementation of circular economic design is a complicated business, as is the disruption of distribution models which have become increasingly convenient for consumers, often at the expense of sustainability. Like everyone else we will deliver to your door, but you can also save money by ordering to a local collection point!

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Origin Club — The Collaborative Trade Platform

Source the best at wholesale prices — for your local store, market stall, Food Assembly…however you buy your food, we can supply authentic Greek produce in wholesale quantities, direct from the local farmer’s networks which produced it.

Our platform connects ethical consumers in places like Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, UK, with local producers in places like Evia Island in Central Greece. Our key observation is that while we have designed and built local food systems all over Europe, we’ve yet to co-develop the regional trade networks which can knit these local systems. Origin Club is in essence a platform cooperative for the Community Supported Trade movement. The idea is simply to make producers of high quality whole foods — ideally foods which are produced in small-scale and / or cooperatively and in alignment with circular economic and regenerative agricultural principles — more visible and accessible to a growing audience of ethical consumers.

And here’s the punch line. When we give ordinary people better information and access, we believe people will incrementally make better food choices, which in turn will create the market forces which change the way we grow and trade food in Europe. We‘re convinced this is possible not by expensive customer acquisition or any single disruptive technology, but rather through the progressive application of four embarrassingly simple principles.

Democracy — Let’s build next-stage organisations which represent every legitimate interest in their trading activity, by default.

Transparency — Let’s embrace an Age of Information to harness the transformative power of cooperative advantage.

Agility — Let’s begin by acknowledging how little we really know about the world. Then let’s design for an iterative and integrative approach to life which is experimental and playful, whilst taking seriously our ability to respond to the most urgent and impactful design challenges of our time.

Autonomy — Let’s respect each other as individual sensors, woven interdependently into a Great Scheme of Things that can only be made sense of when experienced as a whole. Let’s only play the games we choose to play, and which therefore do not incur any enforcement costs.

We’re working on an agreement to white label Yellow Seed’s existing platform, which already does 90% of what we’d like Origin Club’s to do. We’re also hoping to integrate Provenance’s blockchain application as seamlessly as possible. Just like Yellow Seed, our collaborative trade platform will, in essence, help to give “farmer’s a voice, and buyer’s more choice.”

Evia Non-profit Association (ENA) — The local farmer’s network and CSA scheme

We know Community Supported Agriculture is the beating heart of any movement to change the way we grow and trade food in Europe. That’s why we’re convening a community and crowd on North Evia to develop an exemplar scheme which delivers real benefits to growers, volunteers and consumers alike. No-one in the middle, just organically grown whole-foods which regenerate both people and place!

ENA means “one” in Greek and is our recently launched Evia Non-profit Association, a community organisation + Transition initiative on North Evia. Specifically ENA Food relates to a local Community Supported Agriculture scheme for the region. As well as a local fruit and vegetable schemes for both box subscriptions and collection points serving North Evia, Chalkida (Evia’s capital) and Athens (less than 150 miles away, close enough to support a small network of Food Assemblies), we’re also planning the research and development of a comprehensive package of tools for effective collaboration processes, governance, knowledge accumulation, tool sharing, volunteer coordination, matchmaking and mapmaking.

In 21017 this solidarity network is finding it’s feet on North Evia through the simple act of gathering for a monthly ENA Assembly. We’re already witnesses the roots and shoots of something special emerging and if you’d like to share in this adventure from the very beginning, why not come play? ENA will gather to celebrate our accomplishments and collectively envision the future of this magical island over a 4 day Assembly — to be hosted by founding members Free and Real during their Spiral Knights eco-festival from 7–10 September 2017. For more information, please download our PDF invite here.

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Elysion Fields — The research farm and rural innovation lab

This is our design for a dedicated research farm on North Evia. You can find a very basic introduction to this concept and a potential development scheme here. We hope that one of our physical infrastructures on Evia will be a research farm on the 3,500,000m2 Farakla Estate, designed to support diversification to polyculture, research on sustainable tools, machinery and processes, research on sustainable uses of forestry areas, research on regenerative agricultural practices more generally and research on food processing and product development.

We’re need research farms because we know that growing a collaborative trade network who make better food choices is only half the story. Elysion Fields is therefore an innovative co-farming model designed to support local growers on the ground in Central Greece. We need to incentivise more local farmers to grow regeneratively, and that means better social marketing and more product differentiation. We believe in 100% transparency from farm to fork! And we trust that if people can see the impact of their food choices, they will do the right thing — for their health and the health of the entire biosphere!

Our business model is quite innovative, but also straightforward. It goes something like this…

— A non-profit association takes a rolling 10 year lease on an under-utilised agricultural land and issues sub-leases to it’s members.

— Working in this way, different land-uses — from bee-keeping to medicinal herb cultivation, market gardens to tree nurseries — may be layered onto the same site, with responsibility for each specific enterprise adopted by an individual leaseholder. Responsibility for the lease as a whole is effectively shared.

— Meanwhile, a single lease is issued to a facilities manager and project development agency — in our case, One Planet Productions — who generate supplementary revenues by establishing a rural innovation hub on the site.

— This events infrastructure is designed to be flexible, semi-temporary and low-cost, but will offer significant benefits to the local farmers network, including access to volunteer and internship schemes as well as mentorship by leading edge innovators from across Europe.

— From the perspective of the innovation lab, the local farmer’s activity provides the content necessary to attract R&D partners, curate Corporate Social Responsibility schemes and generally build lasting and committed relationships with audiences both in Greece and beyond.

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So, where do we go from here?

What happens next is up to us to choose.

This article is something of a progress report — we’ve done an initial R&D sprint and now we feel ready to start iterating and scaling up our activities, but to make any of this happen we need your feedback and your help.

We’re excited that narrative and frames are beginning to emerge, and hope these will be accelerated by each of the four key activities outlined above. All the while our massive and transformative purpose remains intact, coordinating our activity like a heartbeat — how can we change the way we grow and trade food in Europe?

We hope and pray that you’re moved to make a difference, whether by supporting our next campaign, referring a friend, simple sharing our content on your social media channels or stepping boldly into this adventure as a collaborator.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The invitation is open.

Got questions? Email marcus@oneplanet.io, or comment below.

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Origin Club

Helping small organic farmers sell their products online.

Marcus Letts

Written by

Marcus Letts is a design thinker and event producer from the UK. He lives on the isle of Evia in Greece with his wife Emily and two young boys, Seth and Lucas.

Origin Club

Helping small organic farmers sell their products online. #ethicalagriculture

Marcus Letts

Written by

Marcus Letts is a design thinker and event producer from the UK. He lives on the isle of Evia in Greece with his wife Emily and two young boys, Seth and Lucas.

Origin Club

Helping small organic farmers sell their products online. #ethicalagriculture

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