Track­ing food, farm to ta­ble, is co-op aim

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - NATHAN OWENS

CLIN­TON — With the help of blockchain tech­nol­ogy, con­sumers will soon be able to use their cell­phones to scan pack­aged poul­try prod­ucts from Grass Roots Farm­ers’ Co­op­er­a­tive and fol­low the route the prod­ucts took from farm to fork, Gen­eral Man­ager Cody Hop­kins said.

“Start­ing [ this] week, we’re go­ing to roll this out in all our poul­try prod­ucts,” said Hop­kins of the Clin­ton­based co­op­er­a­tive. “Ev­ery pack­age of chicken will have a QR code that will trace back to the batch.”

This month the co­op­er­a­tive sent a pi­lot ship­ment of poul­try to Golden Gate Meat Co. in San Fran­cisco, where cus­tomers could test whether the track­ing tech­nol­ogy worked.

Ac­cord­ing to Heifer In­ter­na­tional, Grass Roots Co­op­er­a­tive is the first group of small-scale sup­pli­ers in the U.S. to use blockchain tech­nol­ogy for food trac­ing. Through Prove­nance, a United King­dom-based blockchain startup com­pany, the pack­aged chicken’s sup­ply-chain and farm in­for­ma­tion is made avail­able to the pub­lic in a way that’s dif­fer­ent from what most food sup­pli­ers use.

“When you go to the gro­cery stores, there’s no way to know ‘Gosh, where’d this start? Where did it go? How many stages were there?’” Hop­kins said.

In the short time that blockchain tech­nol­ogy has been around, the tech­nol­ogy com­mu­nity has raved about its po­ten­tial in the fi­nan­cial sec­tor. Cre­ated by vir­tual cur­rency Bit­coin’s anony­mous founder, the orig­i­nal tech­nol­ogy was in­tended to serve as the im­mutable pub­lic ledger for all Bit­coin trans­ac­tions.

Blockchain acts as a ledger that can’t be tam­pered with be­cause no in­di­vid­ual has full con­trol over the chain. Now the tech com­mu­nity is find­ing other po­ten­tial uses for this

prac­ti­cally un­hack­able sys­tem, and large cor­po­ra­tions are be­ing drawn to the tech­nol­ogy.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study from Ju­niper Re­search, about 57 per­cent of large cor­po­ra­tions — de­fined as any com­pany with more than 20,000 em­ploy­ees — in the world are ac­tively con­sid­er­ing or im­ple­ment­ing blockchain into their sys­tems by the end of 2018.

In Oc­to­ber, Wal- Mart Stores Inc. and IBM be­gan test­ing in China a blockchain sys­tem that’s sim­i­lar to Prove­nance. The sys­tem lets the com­pa­nies track foods to their ori­gins as a way to quickly stop the spread of any foodrelated dis­eases or to fa­cil­i­tate food re­calls.

Frank Yian­nas, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of food safety at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., told the

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette in Fe­bru­ary that the blockchain test re­sults looked promis­ing and he imag­ined a day when con­sumers could pick up a food item, scan it with a smart de­vice such as a cell­phone and trace its route through the sup­ply chain.

An­ni­bal Sodero, a pro­fes­sor of sup­ply chain man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has taught his stu­dents about the uses and cur­rent state of blockchain tech­nol­ogy. Sodero said

the blockchain tech­nol­ogy is still in de­vel­op­ment, and most com­pa­nies are rac­ing to be the first to cre­ate a na­tion­ally or world-ac­cepted stan­dard for the tech­nol­ogy.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing to see a small or­ga­ni­za­tion get­ting on the band­wagon of a tech­nol­ogy that has not be­come a stan­dard yet,” he said.

Lim­ited test­ing and no­tyet-ac­cepted stan­dards for us­ing the tech­nol­ogy are two of the risks blockchain users cur­rently face, Sodero said.

“Ul­ti­mately, [blockchain] is go­ing to be the fi­nal so­lu­tion [for sup­ply chain oper­a­tions],” Sodero said. “I’m just not sure if it’s the right tim­ing for a small or­ga­ni­za­tion to use it.”

Grass Roots be­gan in 2014 as a model for small-scale farm­ers in Arkansas to com­pete against large food com­pa­nies. Small-scale farm­ers have tried to adopt the busi­ness model of food gi­ants, but small-scale dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems are in­ef­fi­cient, Hop­kins said.

To be vi­able, a few farm­ers pooled re­sources and be­gan sell­ing their prod­ucts un­der the Grass Roots la­bel. To­day 15 small-scale live­stock farm­ers are part of the co-op.

Shortly af­ter its in­cep­tion, Heifer In­ter­na­tional rec­og­nized

the value of the co­op­er­a­tive model and be­gan fund­ing Grass Roots the year that it started.

In to­tal, the co­op­er­a­tive has re­ceived nearly $3 mil­lion in grants from Heifer, said Sara Brown, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment man­ager at Heifer In­ter­na­tional.

The co­op­er­a­tive farm­ers sup­ply pas­ture- raised and butchered beef, poul­try, pigs and tur­keys to restau­rants and di­rectly to con­sumers. Last year, the co­op­er­a­tive de­vel­oped a monthly meat de­liv­ery ser­vice to broaden its mar­ket range. Re­cently a San- Fran­cisco- based meat com­pany be­came in­ter­ested in sell­ing Grass Roots prod­ucts. Prove­nance’s blockchain tech­nol­ogy strength­ened the co­op­er­a­tive’s case.

With Golden Gate Meat Co. as a cus­tomer, Grass Roots can “ex­pand beyond be­ing a lo­cal co-op and be­gin de­vel­op­ing a na­tional brand for them­selves,” Brown said.

One of the co­op­er­a­tive sup­pli­ers, Falling Sky Farm, is north of Clin­ton in the Ozark Moun­tains. As gray clouds rolled by Tues­day morn­ing, cows lolled on a grassy knoll; chicks chirped nearby; and pigs, coated in mud, grunted in a nearby thicket.

For own­ers Hop­kins and

An­drea Toldt, eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able farm­ing is close to their hearts. The live­stock are on a ro­ta­tional graz­ing sched­ule, which they said im­proves the health of their pas­ture and an­i­mals, which in turn means a bet­ter prod­uct for their cus­tomers.

It’s too early to tell how cus­tomers will re­spond to

Prove­nance’s blockchain tech­nol­ogy, but the trans­parency it of­fers can val­i­date how small-scale farm­ers do things dif­fer­ently from com­mer­cial com­peti­tors. Re­gard­less of the risks in­volved, Hop­kins said, he is ex­cited that con­sumers will be able to fi­nally “au­then­ti­cate the jour­ney of our prod­uct.”

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