Our fascination with food and where it comes from is helping to drive somewhat of a revolution in food choices and our ability to connect with the farmers that grow them.
Food-oriented blogs run by farmers, distributors, packers, and food aficionados and the content syndication infrastructure they allow are helping to better connect the dots from farm-to-fork. This has profound implications for food safety, improving brands, and increasing awareness of the use and nutritional properties of food.
“Farm-to-fork is about understanding where your food is coming from and allowing a relationship with the people growing the food you are digesting.
The first element is having that connection with the person who is growing your food. The second thing is increasing the local connection, because you are more likely to be curious about your food when it is based nearby. Also as more and people are storytelling about their artisanal food product, there is a way you can feel more of a connection with food that is not local to you.”
Farm-to-fork in practice
The farm-to-fork revolution can make it easier to find and buy local food. A number of regional virtual farmers markets have sprung up that make it easier to have foods grown or produced locally shipped to your home or business such as Good Eggs and Grub Market.
The Eat Well Guide offers more than 25,000 locally grown listings of farms, restaurants, and retailers that sell their foods. Farm Star Living provides a national guide to the local lifestyle with lists of restaurants, foods, chefs, and farmers.
The farmers are even highlighted as stars with baseball card like statistics and stories about them. Meanwhile, Greenease provides a blog and mobile app for connecting consumers, restaurants, and local farms. Even some states are getting involved with the North Carolina Local Foods Infrastructure Inventory.
Restaurants are now starting to take advantage of this trend as well.
New federal regulations are already requiring restaurants to provide more in-depth nutritional information about the foods on their menu. And many are starting to throw in more information about the farms where their foods come from as well. For example, Bon Appétit Restaurants have launched a groundbreaking companywide initiative requiring Chefs to buy at least 20% of their ingredients from small farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food producers within 150 miles of their kitchens.
Other services are focusing on connecting small-to-midsize farmers with local retailers including Walmart and Safeway, which may have otherwise been reluctant to buy from them, said John Matthesen, a technology venture capitalist who bought and manages Rogers Urban Farm.
He said that today’s consumers are used to shopping in these places and there is a consumer drive towards local foods. He sees this trend being strongest on the East and West Coasts were people are used to buying at local farmers markets. This is helping to drive greater awareness and interest in better quality local foods.
With the significant interest in information about how food is grown, one of the biggest challenges will lie in organizing information about the foods, growing processes, and processing using blog-based content syndication techniques. Better blogging infrastructure will make it easy for growers, artisanal food companies, chefs, and retailers to update their story once and have it reflected across social media channels and distributors.
Building new connections between farmers and retailers
Even with the fascination with better food, most people continue to shop at larger supermarkets, because they are efficient, cheap, and provide lots of variety. But big box supermarkets have a focus on highly efficient distribution systems that incorporate food safety practices throughout the harvesting and distribution of food, said Alvaro Ramirez, CEO and Cofounder of eHarvestHub. This is a reasonable concern owing to the high cost of food recalls.
At the same time, it also means that many local food growers are cut off from local markets.
To help bridge this gap, a number of information services have sprung up to help smaller farmers better track their growing practices and can help to aggregate the output of local farms to retailer’s distribution centers including eHarvest Hub, Local Orbit, ScoringAg, and Advanced Traceability Solutions. At the moment, these solutions are oriented towards food safety.
Ramirez said they started offering farmers a traceability solution for legal reasons to speed up recalls when problems arise. The service is offered for free to farmers who benefit from better sale volumes and higher profits and pay a small transaction fee when sales occur.
Today the farmers sell through middlemen who often rebrand and repackage the produce from different farmers, which makes identifying where it was grown and when it was harvested difficult. Ramirez believes this kind of service has the potential to do for small local farmers what Uber is doing to the big taxi companies.
There are also some initial efforts to help connect these dots all the way to the consumer. For example, YottaMark has developed the Harvest Mark web service and mobile application that allows consumers to find out how and where a particular food item was grown. The Mixingbowl’s Trice sees a trend of more services providing traceable information from the consumer’s standpoint. Better content syndication practices derived from the blogging world could help to connect these dots, and alert consumers when produce from farmers they like arrives at the local supermarket.
Food as literature
Farmers and artisanal food makers are excited about the potential for blogging and other social media techniques to help grow the long tail of food distribution. It could be argued that social media has played a role in stoking consumer fears of food growing techniques like GMOs, said Trice. In some ways this has generated some distrust about big food companies and traditional growing practices, but social media has also opened the doors for novel branding strategies.
Trice argues that social media and blogging played a key role in the growth energy drink brands like Red Bull and Monster Beverages. In fact, Monster was so successful that Coca Cola recently bought a 17% stake for $2.15 billion. Social media is making it possible for new niches to grow outside of established food companies, said Trice.
Larger produce distributors are also using social media channels to reach out to consumers as well, said Dennis Donohue, President of Royal Rose LLC, which specializes in Radicchio. Donohue is also the former mayor of Salinas, which is arguably the largest producer of row crop produce in the nation. Depending on the season, 50-90% of the crops like broccoli, strawberries, and kale are produced there.
Donohue says many of these produce giants are leveraging blogs and other social media channels to help increase brand awareness. He said, it has evolved to the place where you have smart strategic professional players using it as a consumer outreach and education opportunity.”
Royal Rose has also turned to blogging to help inform consumers about the nutritional properties, uses, and recipes for radicchio. Donohue said,
“We have an item that you have to educate people on. The trend is to use blogging as more of a strategic outreach tool. People are looking at this whole long tail phenomena, and it is clear that social media is driving it.”
Donohue attributes the current popularity of Kale due to social media. He said,
“Kale was dying and on its way to the produce graveyard. It was on its last leg of being the garnish that was replaced by plastic. Now it is in juices, smoothies, and chips.”
He is hoping to repeat the same success with radicchio by leveraging social media.
“One of the things I like about radicchio is its versatility, but you have to teach people how to use it. This requires focus and investment. We understand there is a blogging world that allows you to tie into the social networks.
Those who create the best networks will have the most business success. Understanding blogging and networks is the holy grail to pursue today.”
The ethics of farm-to-fork blogging
While there are many upsides in helping to better connect consumers with information about their foods, bloggers need to consider the ethical implications of stretching expectations. Michael Pollan, who personally investigated the farming practices that went into an organic meal he cooked up, found a large discrepancy between the expectations of what he calls “pastoral literature,” and the stark reality.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma he reported seeing organic milk coming from factory farmed cows in large barren feedlots that never saw a blade of grass. And the organic “free range” chickens never saw the light of day.
Conversely, there is much evidence to suggest that local is not necessarily sustainable. One agricultural art project in the Netherlands found it cost almost $20 and 9-months to grow an all local ham and cheese sandwich — not including the volunteer labor. In the end, the project yielded only 350-sandwiches, but did manage to teach a lot of locals about what goes into a popular local sandwich, called a Tosti.
As Trice noted,
“One of the questions for me is will people value local food if there is a good story about where it is grown and the health benefits provided. If I can buy a fair trade organic food at Costco, do I care that the strawberries may be from Costa Rica even if they are available here in California.
How important is price in all of the other elements of my purchasing decision?”
Then there is a tradeoff between the ethics of smaller farmers and the supply chain efficiency of larger producers. At Matthesen noted,
“Small farmers tend not to be unethical. They are less likely to do anything intentionally deceptive. The large scale food industry is always trying to press forward with labeling that is complex and confusing to people regardless of what it means. I think people understand that, which is a driver for local stuff.
But a lot of the bigger producers can afford to have the machines that wash all of the lettuce and greens, and practices and procedures in place that do a good job of getting rid of E. coli, that might be a problem for a farmer with two acres. It takes money to have processes and temperature controls and automated washing equipment. Smaller is not always automatically better.”
The future of farm to fork
At the end of the day, better information sharing through blogs, mobile applications, and food chain tracking promises to give smaller farmers a leg up, which could be a good thing for building local community and awareness. As Trice noted,
“If you look at young farmers today, on average 75% of them fail. One of the things I hope we will see in our local food culture among growers is a maturation that includes the acceptance of technology. A sustainable farmer is not just producing a sustainable business and enjoying an economically sustainable lifestyle.”
Down the road, new sensor technology and the social media platforms for sharing the results could make and break farmers and markets, said Matthesen. He has seen a growing interest in startup companies with equipment and services for testing for bacteria, organic, and GMOs. He foresees the development of smart phone apps that let consumers test produce in the stores and share the results on the Web.
This could create friction with retailers who have to deal with the fallout from consumers finding out that the produce has pathogens or is not organic as advertised. This could motivate retailers to be more diligent about testing produce when it arrives, and lead to tensions with the distributors or farmers. Better supply chain tracking might lead retailers to reject produce that exceeds an established temperature in transit. Matthesen said, “There is a pressure to have this happen and a pressure for this to be swept under the rug.”
Donohue expects popular bloggers to be sought out to help promote particular brands or types of produce. He said,
“The trend is how you get more interactive and connect more directly with the people that buy your product. You want to reach out to people that have an influence, and likewise bloggers want to build a following, and to the degree they are successful, that will reinforce who can influence the trends.”
George Lawton has been infinitely fascinated yet scared about the rise of cybernetic consciousness, which he has been covering for the last twenty years for publications like IEEE Computer, Wired, and many others. He keeps wondering if there is a way all this crazy technology can bring us closer together rather than eat us. Before that, he herded cattle in Australia, sailed a Chinese junk to Antarctica, and helped build Biosphere II. You can follow him on the Web and on Twitter @glawton.