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Spreading Sustainable Agriculture By Stacking It On Existing Farmland

Some farms are very big and don’t use all their land. What if another, smaller farmer could just set up shop on top of it?

Many people dream of setting up a little farm somewhere, producing wholesome food, and living the good life. But, of course, agriculture is hard: the upfront costs are high, and the returns uncertain.

That’s where Farmstacker wants to help. The winner of last weekend’s Hack//Meat event, in Palo Alto, it aims to link up young farmers with spare plots of land, minimizing their startup costs, and giving established farmers extra income. It calls itself "efarmony," after the dating site.

Farmstacker co-founder Kevin Watt.

The idea for Farmstacker came from co-founder Kevin Watt, who re-leases land on a cattle ranch in Pescadero, California. The 24-year-old has a nice poultry business, which he claims was profitable from day one, because he didn’t have to buy into a big lease all his own.

Meanwhile, the owner of Leftcoast Grassfed is happy because Watt hands over a little cash for land the farmer isn’t using, and his chickens improve the soil. "They were excited that we could bring in our chickens and graze that pasture after they had used it," Watt says. "They have an extra lease payment, but they also have our chickens to fertilize their grass."

Essentially, Watt and his four partners hope to replicate this arrangement for other young farmers, using up fallow ground, farmland vacated by absentee owners, and even public land where possible. "If we only let young farmers search for land in a traditional way, where they have absolute control over the lease, we’re missing out on a lot of opportunity where farmers can plug into existing operations and do complementary production," Watt says.

It’s still only an idea as yet. Though the team won some cash and in-kind services at Hack//Meat, they still have to actually build a website and find farmers willing to participate. Eventually, though, the partners see the venture as a useful intermediary: finding the land on one end, and vouching for young farmers on the other. And, they reckon Northern California should be an ideal place to start. "We have a tremendous challenge here in the Bay Area with expensive real estate, with a very local farming community that wants to provide local and sustainable agriculture," says Rob Trice, another of the founders.

Farmstacker wasn’t the only good idea at Hack//Meat, which was meeting for a second time (the first was before Christmas, in New York). Cow Share With Us, which lets people to go in together to buy whole animals, won the business prize. Buyotic, which helps people buy antibiotic-free chicken, won a social good award. Then there was Agent Yum, a Google Glass application for scanning supermarket items for GMO ratings (Best Use of Technology), and Beefopedia (Best Design) which educates consumers about heritage beef.

Basically: all very promising. Watt calls the event, which brought together about 200 farmers, coders, non-profits and food brands (like Applegate), "amazingly inspiring." "In two days, I went from feeling this would be an uphill slog, to thinking 'how can we fail?'"