Saturday, September 24, 2011

Local Food Economy: A Call for Innovation

The number of farmers markets in this country has almost doubled in the last five years. From a customer's point of view, this increased access to locally produced food is fantastic. And from the producer side, the increased demand for their products feels like a good thing. However, the “tools" that these farmers depend on to grow, process, and sell their food are in dire need of a makeover.

While small scale farmers are definitely not in their business for the money, make no mistake about it, if they don't have enough money to operate and pay themselves, the small scale farm won't survive. Here are some areas in which I’ve observed that a lack of proper tools seems to be causing problems: While the farmers find the vintage tools they use charming, they are frustrated by the lack of new tools available that fit the scale of their operations. And while farmers enjoy meeting their customers at the farmers market, the farmers market as a tool-for-sales is a drain on their time. There’s a great opportunity here for entrepreneurs, especially those interested in local economic development, to create the tools that small farmers need. Here in Upstate New York, we’ve already seen some entrepreneurial efforts in local distribution and sales beyond farmers markets. Both Good Food Collective in Rochester and Garden Gate Food in Ithaca have started businesses that connect local producers with customers providing locally grown produce, dairy, meats, bread, and even soap. These entrepreneurs don’t have brick and mortar stores but have instead retro-fitted refrigerated trucks that function as mobile “pop-up shops.” 
As for farm tools and processing tools, I’ve seen many great inventions on the farms I’ve visited. But moving these inventions (technologies that work) to innovations (technologies that scale) is the challenge that I’m hoping entrepreneurs will rise to. And rather than offshore production, I hope we take advantage of local, manufacture-on-demand technology and local talent. photo: on the left, Farmer Erin with a home made tool for marking seed beds and on the right, a spring-tooth-harrow, made by Leroy Plows, that she pulled out from the woods surrounding Mud Creek Farms.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Design-thinking with Local Food Entrepreneurs

There's a movement in the Rochester metro area to transform our local food economy. Transforming the local food economy presents three major questions: 1. How do we help small and mid size farmers do what they do best - grow delicious food using sustainable farming techniques,  2. How do we help customers get that food, 3. How do we keep food dollars in our region and create food-related jobs.

This fall my design-thinking class at RIT is working with three different stakeholders in this transformation: 1. The Good Food Collective which handles sales and distribution from 8 farms to 500 members, 2. FreshWise Farms, a social enterprise of Foodlink that delivers food education and healthy locally grown food to underserved populations, and 3. Mud Creek Farm/Small World Bakery, a medium sized farm that offers CSAs and makes some great processed food like KimChi!

We're super excited about the diversity of food entrepreneurs we get to work with. Each enterprise has different problems for us to explore. For example, Good Food has an awesome distribution truck, the Green Bean Machine, but winter's coming so they need to fit it with accessories that stand up to our Western New York winters. Mud Creek Farm has a great problem too - lack of access to tools that fit their mid-sized farm. It turns out that there are many tools for serious gardeners but they're too small. And there are many tools for industrial farms but they're too big (insert Goldielocks joke here). And then FreshWise is trying to think up innovative ways to engage K-12 students with the healthy locally grown food that's finding its way into their after school meals.

The list of problems here illuminates the complexities we navigate when trying shift from a well established model to an alternative model. And it's in these kinds of spaces, working with these kinds of problems, that innovation happens. It's dirty and gritty and messy and fun.

So three cheers for our new adventure. I'll be reporting on our process as we dig deeper into the projects. Its bound to be full of surprises.

PS - Please come to our Local Food Potluck on 9/29. Details here: