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Food Web, Meet Interweb: The Networked Future of Farms

By Alexis Madrigal

Wired Science News for Your Neurons


Silicon Valley thinks the internet can transform anything from car sales to anonymous sex, but the way Americans grow and buy food is rooted in ancient, offline systems.

Now, a Bay Area startup has launched a service to make it easier and cheaper for restaurants to buy food from small, local farms. With a suite of mobile apps for use in restaurants and on farms, FarmsReach wants to create an online food marketplace that would directly connect farms with restaurants.

“The food supply industry is ripe for ‘disintermediation’ because of the internet,” said Alistair Croll, a startup consultant working with FarmsReach. In other words, middlemen beware: Food could undergo a transition like the one that swept through classified ads, air travel and dozens of other industries.

If that happens, it could begin to transform the food system, and that would be welcome news for food activists. The problems of the food system have been well-chronicled over the last few years: environmental degradation, occasional food-borne disease outbreaks and millions of overweight Americans.

While these issues are receiving attention from many organizations, both inside and outside of the agricultural sector, information flow could be the hidden lever inside the food system. The current system does a remarkably good job of concealing how food is grown and by whom. Lettuce planted halfway around the world looks pretty much like lettuce grown around the corner. Farmers have a hard time showing the value they add and being recognized for innovative practices.

The current distribution of edibles works the way it does, though, because it’s brutally effective at reliably delivering low-cost food all over the country. Sysco, the dominant $13 billion American food distributor, works and restaurants know that.

“The big problem in small agriculture is supply chain resiliency,” Croll said. “Chefs order from Sysco because they know, no matter what, they’ll get their orders or there is an account rep they can strangle.”

Now, restaurants have two basic options. Call up a dozen local farms to order the ingredients for their salads or use Sysco’s online system and have everything show up, come hell or high water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the pickiest chefs at the fancier restaurants choose the local farm route.

FarmsReach wants to make ordering from local, small farms as easy and reliable as ordering from Sysco. Farmers with smartphones would snap quick photos of their produce, then upload their products into their “virtual stalls.” Restaurants could cruise through the vegetables online and pick what they wanted. It’s a classic farmer’s market with a high-tech twist.

And by bringing producers and customers closer together, the internet could cause purchasers to change who they buy their food from. Already, increasing numbers of restaurants and produce buyers demand to know more about the food they are purchasing.

“Buying local or knowing where your product comes from is the biggest revolution in our business,” said Jim Boyce, general manager of Produce Express, a food distributor in Sacramento, who sources up to a third of its produce from within 100 miles of its location during the summer months.

Other startups are trying to put more information in the hands of consumers, too. Three students at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information are trying to create a social network, Squash and Vine, to connect farms, retailers and food consumers. And a handful of activists in Santa Cruz created a service for finding small farms, Local Harvest, that now reaches 4 million people.

These efforts share FarmsReach’s vision of a technology-revised food system. The local food advocates have already begun to envision what that system looks like and it goes beyond labels like organic or simple accounting like food miles, although those can be useful heuristics. The reformed system should incorporate more fresh food, less chemicals and fertilizer use, and smaller farms, they say.

“[The future food system] looks like a lot of small farms,” said Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest “It looks like really smart distribution for interweaving networks of smaller-scale farms that are distributing much more locally.”

Local Harvest is the largest website connecting local food consumers directly with producers, but it was built on a shoestring budget. They don’t have the resources to come up with an alternative supply chain.

“It would be awesome if people who don’t have an hour and a half to go to the farmer’s market could just log on, place their order from a combined list of what everybody’s got for the week and go pick it up. That would take the availability of that food to a whole group of different people, which would be good,” Barnett said. “But I don’t see us owning a fleet of trucks.”

Some small-scale farmers have tried to band together to act as larger producers, like the Community Alliance for Family Farms Project’s Growers Collaborative, but it’s a tough organizing task just knowing what each of the farms has to offer. This is an industry that spends much of its time outdoors or in kitchens, so inputting information is rarely a priority, even when a farm’s proprietors are Internet-savvy.

Brook Delorne and her brother, Noah DeLorme, each spent years in the tech world. But their 130-acre vegetable farm Locally Known in Maine uses old-fashioned personal relationships to sell its products.

“If it doesn’t make perfect sense and it’s too much effort, it’s a distraction almost from what really needs to get done,” Delorne said.

What needs to get done is plowing and planting and harvesting. Updating a Facebook fan page doesn’t really make the list. But there’s something to the idea of taking advantage of network effects to add more information about local food into a system. You just need to build the right tool.

Farms Reach’s Croll said he key is making their suite of tools more useful than the current “handshake and phone call” system that farms and restaurants currently use.

“Once the system is useful enough, and the farms are saying, ‘I don’t want to take your phone order, use the system, it’s easier,’ we’ll know we’ve succeeded,” Croll said.

Squash and Vine’s founders don’t want to supplant the current distribution infrastructure, but they do want to simplify things for consumers and farmers. Their site (still in the concept phase) is based on extensive research carried out by the site’s co-founders Shawna Hein, Hazel Onsrud and Aylin Selcukoglu in completing their master’s degrees at the Berkeley Information School.

Farmers have a hard time updating web pages they found, so they’d create audio updates that could be called in from the field. Consumers don’t always know what’s in season, but someone usually does, and there would be avenues to spread that knowledge. It will combine the feature-rich social networking aspects of Facebook or the recipe-heavy food site, Bakespace, with the ideals that created Local Harvest.

“People want things that are convenient and easy for them,” said Onsrud. “They don’t necessarily want to have to go out of their way. If they knew where more of the information was, it wouldn’t be as big of a hurdle.”

To get increased adoption of new food behaviors, though, they’ll need a lot of users from up and down the supply chain. Without obvious monetary or other incentives, they could face the standard Web 2.0 dilemma: Without users, the site isn’t valuable and the site isn’t valuable without users.

But even if it starts small, the efforts could have an outsize effort in demonstrating what how the interwebs could change the food web.

“The potential effect is much bigger than the tons or dollar amounts of food that it impacts because it’s enabling people to know more about where their food comes and rewarding people who are taking those steps,” said Tom Tomich, director of the University of California, Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

Image: flickr/JimmySmith

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