November 2, 2018

Food-Origins aims to take blockchain all the way back to the field

At a busy office in a famous California valley, a small team of entrepreneurs, coders and customer reps work on a data-gathering blockchain system that’s already generating a substantial amount of press and interest, a project the group says will change the way America gets its food.

Tech startup Food-Origins is located in the Salinas Valley, rather than Silicon Valley. Salinas is one of America’s most productive regions for specialty crop agriculture: the office itself is next to a strawberry field, a lettuce field and a tractor dealership.

Food-Origins idea is to gather data from the harvest crews themselves that would be tied to individual boxes of produce that are picked. Each picker carries a sensor and a scanner, and the data is fed back to a device brought to the field that’s being harvested. In an age where retail giants are using blockchain technology to publicly record cryptocurrency transactions, adding more data to produce as it travels from farm to fork is of great interest to produce buyers.

Even though the product isn’t for sale yet – the company plans a commercial release in Spring 2019 – Food-Origins was recently given a “Best New Field Innovation” award by the United Fresh Produce Association.

An innovation

 Food-Origins is the brainchild of University of Illinois Professor Richard Sowers.

“I live in the Midwest, where huge combines harvest in fields and at the same time take immense amounts of data,” Sowers said. “After I saw how strawberries are harvested and realized the variability and value of hand-picked crops, a natural next question was to see if modern technology could give similar data for specialty crops. The modern farmer makes decisions based on data; Food-Origins is trying to give high-value farmers the data which row-crop farmers already have and use.”

Better data-gathering in the field has implications for food safety, but would better inform growers about the crop in the field and how the food is being harvested.

“A lot of people think we’re a food safety company and we want to say that’s something we collect from this (but) we are working on bigger issues,” said Sowers’ partner in Food-Origins, strawberry industry veteran Nathan Dorn. “We are here to grow the pie of revenue for farmers and help them capture the most for their efforts.”

Food-Origins captures data on the minute and second where a box is picked, what square meter of the field it was picked in, and who picked it.

“And that’s unparalleled,” Dorn said. “Nobody knows what part of the field it came from and can relate all the data of how it grew.” The data can be accessed on a computer or phone, and Dorn suggested that the harvesting crews themselves might be given access to track their own performance.

Tracking professional pickers

Having a harvest crew on the field during a narrow window of time dependent on weather conditions is important, and harvest labor is among growers’ biggest expenses. Pickers have their own challenges in the field, and it’s not just the physical nature of the job: Picking at a fast rate while keeping high quality standards is a learned skill.

Asked about a possible pushback from pickers who don’t want to wear sensors, Dorn said that professionals are almost always tracked for their production numbers and the quality of what they produce.

“You as writers have only so many characters to put into an article,” he said. “To believe that there’s no difference between picker one and picker two and two people or ten people out there, it’s just a shame, because it’s a professional job.”

He said also compared the pickers to professional baseball players and Food-Origins to the ‘Moneyball’ model of managing baseball players using statistics.

“They’re not all getting paid at the same piece-rate per at-bat,” Dorn said of the baseball players. “They’re getting paid based on their skills and what they bring to the table. So, we want to help bring ‘Moneyball’ to agriculture where top teams and companies can reward better players to be on their side. We view every employee, every field worker, as having a baseball card of data that backs them up because anytime you meet a farmer, you ask them how come you are so good at this, they’ll say it’s because I have good people. Almost 100 percent of the farmers I meet talk about that. What we’re trying to do as a business is we’re trying to capture data that conveys that, and make that data a part of the field workers’ profile.”

Tracking worker performance requires thoroughly understanding the work. To demonstrate the picker’s experience, Dorn has had new hires and interns practice picking strawberries.

“It’s very humbling,” Dorn said. “Every person who has worked with us, except one, has not made minimum wage. We then have them watch and time people earning 20-plus dollars hourly. It sets the stage for people to value the work of others.”

The team

Dorn’s two “customer success engineers” – his son Zachary Dorn and rodeo cowboy Brian Gomes – communicate directly with the field managers and crews on the California farms where the Food-Origins is demonstrating and testing its product.

“What we’ve found is by trying and working from a disadvantage – by being a guy that’s in the field and speaking your Spanish badly, and trying to understand (the harvest crew’s) issues, we get a lot of good feedback,” Dorn said.

Every member of the five-man startup team has some other connection to agriculture. As a teen, Zachary Dorn was put to work picking strawberries by his father. Gomes’ father manages a produce packing plant. Programmer Alcides Sorto, an immigrant from Central America, worked as a harvester and crew boss for tomato and vegetable growers before getting a Matsui Foundation scholarship to learn programming.

“When he and I sit down each day, every conversation ends with him saying, ‘If we do that, it fixes a huge challenge I had when I was in the fields,’ Dorn said. “And he’s very proud that he now as a computer science engineer has the capacity to make those changes himself.”

The other staff programmer, Eliasar ‘Chad’ Gandara, said his father is a career vineyard manager, and he said the background in agriculture does help them with the programming.

“You need to know the problem you’re going to solve,” he said. “We need to know what data we’re going to capture at what point.”

But Gandara said what interested him about Food-Origins was the technology Nathan Dorn wants to create.

“It’s more complex and interesting compared to other software,” Gandara said. “It seems like the ag industry is way behind in using sensors.”

Stephen Kloosterman, contributing editor

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