Plant Something Edible This Year

…or meet someone who is. Not to sound like a kook, but farmers aren’t getting the loans they need to plant out all those amber waves of grain that our industrial food system is used to.

I answered defense theorist Shlok Vaidya’s **call a few months ago to talk to anyone who who had worked on local food distribution, offering him my own minor experience. **He has just posted an excellent video summary of his plan, and given me more credit than I deserve. All I did was help Adam Gordon‘s Farmhouse Solutions plan a feasibility study for teaming local farms up with New York City restaurants over the spring and summer of 2008. We pitched the plan but couldn’t find any angel investors, just “matching funds” awaiting angels.

But during the process I was in the midst of reading The Box, all about the history of shipping containers and the rise of automated inventory and warehousing, which I passed on to Adam. As we stuffed our faces with all the fantastic fruits, vegetables, and specialty cheeses Adam brought home from the market, we formulated some dreams about local food distribution beyond simple farm-restaurant pairings.

The first problem we had was scale- Adam knew several farmers from roughly the same area whose egg production was far below the needs of a restaurant, but collectively their egg production was consistently above the restaurant’s needs. So the pilot test was to coordinate egg production and delivery between several farms and a restaurant in New York. But if the project was going to scale, there would have to be a better system than having all the farmers call Adam and tell him how much of every type of produce they had and when they thought it would be ready.

We got thinking about how useful it would be to create standardized “inventory tracking” tools for coordinated production on small farms. If cooperatives could be quickly formed for types of produce, then farmers could offer the same kind of supply-line consistency that large food suppliers deliver with minimal overhead. We sketched out some features of such a system.

Most farmers have a plan of when to plant, fertilize, weed, and harvest their fields. If they kept track digitally and aggregated their plans over a network, then they could coordinate directly with other local farms to create a steady harvest and supply stream. Many co-ops do this already, but co-ops are hell to get started. If farmers used a standardized farm plan format they could form ad-hoc networked co-ops as needed.

Farmers we spoke to were skeptical of this idea and already over-worked. They were not excited about the prospect of sitting in front of computers. So this is an idea that is really dependent on some simple system that works in the field.

I’d suggest interfacing via SMS with the farm plan, because all farmers have cellphones already. Besides calling from one side of the field to the other, cell phones are empowering farmers as business people- Now you can sheer a sheep and haggle about prices at the same time on a BlueTooth headset.

Such a plan and all the technology surrounding it was out of our league, especially without any capital to try the pilot.  But one day I’d like to get back to those ideas. This summer I’ll be learning Python and traveling on the West Coast with my girlfriend, contact me if you have a project and can use enthusiastic and multi-talented migrant labor. (mathew dot lippincott at gmail dot com)