2013-01-02

Co.Exist

Hacking Meat: Using Technology To Even The Playing Field With Big Agriculture

For small farms, going up against huge, automated competition can be daunting, even more so when you’re selling meat instead of just vegetables. But a recent hackathon created solutions for any farmer to get their meat to market easily and efficiently.

A lot of independent food producers will tell you they like the idea of selling direct, but are put off by the legwork involved. Setting up shop at a farmer’s market or online isn’t just about rearing and growing, and putting things in a light-truck. There’s all sorts of back end stuff that needs to happen first—tasks that prevent farmers from doing what they should be doing, and put them at a disadvantage versus Big Agriculture, which industrialized and automated everything years ago.

One of the purposes of Hack//Meat, a hackathon organized in New York recently, was to figure how to level the playing-field a little bit, giving farmers access to technology that smoothes the process of getting produce to market, in as painless a way as possible.

Teams put forward solutions in six categories, including food labeling and inventory management. The overall winning entry was CARV—an Internet-connected meat scale that captures data such as the cut and weight of a piece of meat, and where and when the animal was processed.

Currently, small producers often handle such data manually. They send an animal to be butchered, and back comes pieces of meat and a paper packing list. To comply with regulations, farmers need to report data to the USDA and Food Safety Inspection Service—a laborious process. CARV notes information at processing time, and ensures it doesn’t need to be re-entered down the line. It also improves transparency in the supply chain, so anybody, including retailers and customers, can see where their meat has come from.

"We grew up on a farm and we help our parents market the meat, and this is the biggest challenge—the inventory," says Ulla Kjarval, who developed the CARV with her sister Melkorka, and a fellow "meat nerd" named Will Turnage. "It’s just really, really tedious, and so much work. If we could make it easier, we would be more profitable and the whole thing would be less frustrating."

"When we get the meat back from the processor, we just get a big box and you don’t really know what the weights are. We have to input all that into our inventory system. This helps us to be more efficient."

The Kjarval family has a 400-acre farm in upstate New York, and the sisters also run a design business. Turnage has put together an Android-based app. But the team still needs to produce a prototype and collaborate more with processors and other farmers. One issue is whether CARV will be a wholly new scale, or something that can be retrofitted to existing equipment (hopefully the latter, says Kjarval). The first prize of $2,500—which comes with consulting assistance—will go towards development costs.

The event showcased many good ideas. In second place came Slot for Slaught, a web tool that improves co-ordination between processors and producers. And in third was Meat—a Foursquare app that allows consumers to request items from independent producers at grocery stores. In addition, there were tools to improve traceability and bar-coding, and ways to educate and inform the public about farming issues. One intriguing scheme even aims to cut the amount of meat people eat. Foodpairing recommends alternatives based on "scientific flavor analysis."

The hack brought together designers, developers, nonprofits, meat industry veterans, and many lay people concerned about the heinous industrialization of meat—and sounds like it was fun. "It was a really inspiring event," Kjarval says.

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