Wiring Ag to Us and Us to Ag: Baby Steps

No pic in my repertoire can compete with the one at the top of this story: Food Web, Meet Interweb: The Networked Future of Farms. Go look, if you didn't already. Notice whether you get a chill/thrill at the very notion of Wired Science, part of Wired online, featuring a story of any kind about agriculture, particularly small farms. In this case, the story is about a use of technology so sensible I have been wondering for years why it is not in place as reliably as 24-hour television: linking small-scale growers to buyers, particularly restaurant buyers, without mid-level distributors, in real time. Good reasons must exist for the missing infrastructure; otherwise, the smart people who farm and the other smart people who buy farm products and value fresh goodness would have solved this a long time ago.

Without knowing for sure, I suspect the most crippling barrier is the lousy-to-nonexistent broadband internet service and cellphone service where most of our growers live. I'd be willing to bet the guy in overalls with the cellphone in the Wired photo is standing in the one place on the farm where he gets a half bar of cellphone service. I will state the obvious - he will not go there several times a day and struggle with poor or slow connections to post breaking news about how many eggs, black raspberries, and fryer-sized rabbits he has for sale today. He does not have time for bad infrastructure.

In the February 2009 stimulus bill, President Obama and Congress included $7 Billion to bring high speed internet to underserved areas. The best I can tell, about $2.5 Billion of that is intended for rural broadband. Wise people aren't holding collective breath, and with good reason. Make that reasons. First, some predictable turf squabbling and competitive lawyering has to work itself out, as described in a CNN Money/Fortune story from March 27, 2009: "Rural broadband vs. red tape."

Next, the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service [does that site seem a bit backwaterish to anyone else?] is headless. President Obama has nominated Jonathan Adelstein, but I see no evidence of confirmation nearly two months after the nomination. Apparently the work to put these particular stimulus dollars to work is unfolding on UBT - Usual Bureaucratic Time. This is one place where slow is not good. Slow Technology is not a bright hope to set alongside Slow Food.

The commercial market may do better broadband wireless more quickly - or may not. I will be surprised if this happens - but what a great surprise it would be if, for example, Verizon delivers on its promise to make very fast 4G wireless available in all parts of the country, including those that lack service now -- and if it does so quickly.

Even if every farmer had excellent broadband and cellphone service, another factor contributes to the lack of a good system for connecting farms directly and efficiently with buyers via the internet. We need dynamic, real time, database-driven interfaces that track the number of bushels of perishable Golden Bantam heritage sweet corn still available from XYZ Farm this minute, and refresh that number as soon as we make our purchase. This automatic updating happens when we go to any online wedding registry site to buy Cousin Myrtle and her new husband one place setting of the 12 they want in the lovely purple and orange pattern. A helpful little box on our computer screen makes it plain that our purchars of one place setting reduces the number of place settings still needed to a more hopeful 11. Surely a similar real-time database and user interface can be designed to serve Farmer Sue as she sells baby turnips to Chef Maria or Cook Fred.

Instead of a dynamic, responsive, useful tool of this sort, many farms now have static websites describing what they produce and what they typically offer for sale during specific months of the year. These sites may never be updated, as the information they present may remain accurate, though general, for years.

As noted in the Wired Science article, Local Harvest makes it easy for buyers to locate local farms and markets, and to buy some seeds and products online from hundreds of producers around the country. Kentucky MarketMaker MarketPlace Buy & Sell Forum does much the same thing, expanded to include conventional and larger scale producers. These sites are updated as often as producers wish, roughly seasonally.

In a different twist, Berea College tried a system for encouraging individual buyers to pre-order foods from multiple growers at the Berea Farmers Market; the food was then assembled for them, ready for payment and pick-up. This online farm store, called the Berea College Farm Online Store, has been temporarily suspended for retooling, according to the website. Berea's store was part of the Locally Grown network, which seems to be functioning in other markets, including, for example, the network's original market in Athens, Georgia.

This approach seems better for both producers and buyers than static websites that say, "Hi! We're your local farm. In September we typically have tomatoes." Whether  the Locally Grown pre-order/quick pick-up approach works adequately for a buyer from a mid-sized restaurant as well as a family planning a week of regular meals - I don't know. It seems to me it achieves a weekly frequency for internet exchange and updating.

We still have a ways to go to get to moment-by-moment update frequency, coupled with good distribution systems that amount to mutual wins for all involved. The Wired Science story suggests lots of startup efforts are trying lots of different avenues, but I expect to continue showing up in person at the Lexington Farmers Market and others for a long time to come. I love the market experience, though I do recognize it would be easier for the growers to sell direct without having to leave their farms for all the hours involved in farmers market presence. I hope the new government funds will stimulate us in that direction.