LocalHarvest Newsletter, January 27, 2020|
LocalHarvest's 20 Year Anniversary!
I am pleased to congratulate the LocalHarvest team on their 20-year anniversary by interviewing the founder, Guillermo Payet for this month's article. I have been just a small periphery player in this two-decade effort, but am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution through researching and writing for LocalHarvest about food and agricultural issues. Below is an abbreviated version of our conversation.
Guillermo, can you tell me what sparked the idea to create the LocalHarvest website? I ran a small software company in the late 1990's, and we sometimes had free time between projects. Instead of being idle, I decided to use that time to build a “community service” project. We discussed the idea internally, and eventually decided on building something to support family farms serving their local communities. We kickstarted this by meeting with about a dozen farmers from Santa Cruz County, CA. The main theme coming out of that meeting was the need for promoting their nascent Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to the general public. I decided then to build a nationwide directory of family farms, farmers' markets, and CSAs.
Was it just you, or were there other people that played a key role in the first few years of the site?
Erin Barnett was instrumental in running the project during the first couple of years, and later came back to run operations in the mid-2010's. Harlan Glatt built much of the first implementation, Berni Jubb was an invaluable advisor and cheerleader, and Reggie Knox, then of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), was my introduction into the world of US family farms. We've had a few other people who have been essential to making us who we are, some of whom are still working with us. Angel Dobrow and Kerry Glendening being prime examples.
What has changed in the local & regional food scene since you started LH?
The main challenge, from my point of view, is that in the last 10 years "local food" has gone mainstream, and with that, there's been relentless competition from extremely well funded players who only care about profit maximization. I'm referring to competition both to small farms, and to online services like LocalHarvest. It's really incredible that at a time when demand for local food is at an all time high (see graph below), many CSAs nationwide are closing, and most diversified family farms are struggling. We've written about this in previous newsletters. The continuing dilution of Organic standards has been another unwelcome trend. On the other hand, the public is much more aware now of the importance of eating healthy food and supporting their local economies.
What issues related to food & farming keep you up at night?
One question I'd like to have more time to research is the effect of a changing climate on small and diversified farms. My hunch is that diversification brings resilience in front of the mounting uncertainty in growing conditions. Will this result in small farms becoming more competitive, or will the added climate stressors be just too much for too many of them? Unfortunately I spend too much of my time writing and maintaining software these days to think about or model these issues as much as I'd like.
What are you optimistic about?
We've been around for 20 years, our directory is very popular, and our CSA management software is used by a large and growing number of farms. We love our work and feel great to be making a positive difference in the world by facilitating a food system based on an ecology of small and local businesses. I highly value the fact that my two kids see me make a living from work that's creative and meaningful. I am looking forward to another 20 years.
Speaking of the future, what is the future of LocalHarvest looking out 5 or 10 years from now?
For many years, our engineering focus has been on the CSAware side of things. We'd like to have the resources to do a full rewrite of LocalHarvest.org into a new system built on modern standards. The basic structure and some of the core software of LocalHarvest.org is 20 years old and could use an upgrade. CSAware, on the other hand, has always stayed in front of the wave and will continue to evolve following the needs of the market.
How can farmers/ranchers cope and innovate to stay ahead of the local food curve and stay relevant (& in business)?
Keep the focus on community and authenticity. Yes, most eaters are spoiled and care mainly about convenience, so by all means provide it, but being “real” is what distinguishes us from the corporate competition with a thin veneer of fake “farminess” that's been taking away such a huge slice of the local food market that small and diversified farms created.
Added Angel Dobrow, a long-time LocalHarvest employee and CSAware account manager:
“I might add the 'fun' part of incorporating technology, and the optimism of small and new farmers to access the tools of big corporations for their own purposes. I feel sometimes that we are dodging bullets but also as we are so much closer to the ground we can be more flexible with what we create and deliver. Software development is all about learning and incorporating new ideas and methods. Kind of like resilience farming.”
The LocalHarvest team is currently exploring ways to add more value to the website and the enormous community that we have created. In addition to renovating the website, we are considering adding some educational tools and offerings such as online short courses, workshops, publications, and more. We would love to hear from you. As a producer, consumer, market manager, or other stakeholder, what are some ways that LocalHarvest could serve you better? Drop a line to Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have ideas, or post them in the comment section below.
Twenty years is a long time in the online space, where businesses come and go as quickly as the moon cycle. Let's give a big virtual pat on the back to Guillermo, Angel, and all the current and previous rockstar employees, consultants, and advisors who have built and grown the LocalHarvest community. We thank you.
With gratitude, -Rebecca Thistlethwaite