Forging A Hot Link To The Farmer Who Grows The Food
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FORGING A HOT LINK TO THE FARMER WHO GROWS THE FOOD
By Brad Stone and Matt Richtel
New York Times
March 28, 2009
America, meet your farmer.
The maker of Stone-Buhr flour, a popular brand in the western United States,
is encouraging its customers to reconnect with their lost agrarian past,
from the comfort of their computer screens. Its Find the Farmer Web site
<http://www.findthefarmer.com/> and special labels on the packages let
buyers learn about and even contact the farmers who produced the wheat that
went into their bag of flour.
The underlying idea, broadly called traceability, is in fashion in many food
circles these days. Makers of bananas, chocolates and other foods are also
using the Internet to create relationships between consumers and farmers,
mimicking the once-close ties that were broken long ago by industrialized
Traceability can be good for more than just soothing the culinary
consciences of foodies. Congress is also studying the possibility of some
kind of traceability measure as a way to minimize the impact of food scares
like the recent peanut salmonella crisis.
The theory: if food producers know they¹re being watched, they¹ll be more
careful. The Stone-Buhr flour company, a 100-year-old brand based in San
Francisco, is giving the buy-local food movement its latest upgrade.
Beginning this month, customers who buy its all-purpose whole wheat flour in
some Wal-Mart, Safeway and other grocery chains can go to findthefarmer
.com, enter the lot code printed on the side of the bag, and visit with the
company¹s farmers and even ask them questions.
³The person who puts that scone in their mouth can now say, Oh my God,
there¹s a real person behind this,¹ ² said Read Smith, 61, who runs Cherry
Creek Ranch, a 10,000-acre farm and cattle ranch in Eastern Washington.
³They are going to bite into that bread or pastry and know whose hands were
on the product.²
The FindtheFarmer site is the brainchild of Josh Dorf, 39, a disaffected
dot.com entrepreneur who got into the food business six years ago by buying
the Stone-Buhr brand from Unilever, the multinational consumer brands
Mr. Dorf gathers wheat from 32 farmers in the Pacific Northwest whose
methods have been certified by an environmental organization. That wheat is
kept segregated from uncertified farmers¹ wheat while it is milled at a
Spokane, Wash., factory, even though a single flour sack could contain wheat
from as many as four farmers.
³Is it gimmicky? Sure, but it has value. Consumers have an interest in
dealing directly with and supporting the American farmer,² said Mr. Dorf,
who said he was inspired to create the site by ³The Omnivore¹s Dilemma² a
book about the damaging effects of a hyperindustrialized food system.
The author of that best seller, Michael Pollan, a professor at the
University of California, Berkeley, said FindtheFarmer was one part of a
bigger effort to reintroduce trust into the food system.
If the peanut processing company that was the source of the recent
salmonella outbreak had live webcams in the production facility, ³would it
have allowed things to get so filthy?² Mr. Pollan asked. ³The more
transparent a food chain is, the more accountable it is.²
Some in Congress agree and have proposed a traceability measure as part of
the proposed F.D.A. Globalization Act of 2009, which would give the Food and
Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture the authority to
require food makers to trace individual products back to the farms that
produced them if necessary.
Representative Diana DeGette, a vocal advocate for the provision, said food
makers initially resisted the concept but also wanted to avoid more
expensive national recalls, which can occur when the specific source of an
outbreak is not known.
³What many food producers are now realizing is the cost of upgrading to a
traceability system is far less than the financial losses than they have to
take if there is some kind of a recall,² said Ms. DeGette, a Colorado
Mr. Dorf says the separate manufacturing process adds only a ³marginal cost²
to each bag, which is priced around $3, similar to other brands of flour.
Several food companies in the United States and Europe are also
experimenting with using the Internet to connect customers with the growers.
Buyers of Dole organic bananas in the United States can now enter a bar code
number on the banana¹s sticker on the Doleorganic.com Web site and see
photos and details about farms in Central and South America. The company
said it plans to expand the effort this year in Europe with a variety of
Askinosie Chocolate, a specialty chocolate maker in Springfield, Mo., also
encourages its customers to enter codes on its Web site and virtually visit
its cocoa bean farms in Mexico, Ecuador and the Philippines and even read
diary entries from farmers.
British supermarkets jumped on the traceability wagon early. The Waitrose
supermarket chain lets buyers see information and videos on the farmers of
potatoes, sugarloaf pineapples, papaya and coconut. Customers at Tesco, one
of Europe¹s largest retailers, can trace the source of products like
The wheat farmers, for their part, appear to be enjoying meeting people at
the other end of the food chain.
³We never knew where our wheat went to. The story always ended at the grain
bin and the big commodity operations,² said Fred Fleming, 59, who operates
Lazy YJ Farms in Reardan, Wash., which is part of FindtheFarmer.
³Now we can actually have a conversation with our city customers. We can get
back to the old days,² he said.
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Published by David Sunfellow
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