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Toward a Platform Cooperative for Food Sovereignty

by Jamie Gaehring | August 05, 2022

Over the last few months, Laurie Wayne of Open Food Network and I have been talking with people we know through various channels, including the farmOS community, Chris Newman's Skywoman group, and the Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology (GOAT), about conducting a series of events around food sovereignty, cooperative agriculture and technology. I've done a poor job at communicating the overall theme for this series, partly because I wasn't sure what the best format and venue for it would be, and partly because I was reluctant to center my own selfish motivations for convening the events in the first place. But since I've finally convinced enough brave souls to loan their knowledge and considerable expertise to this project — and I can't stress enough how truly impressive that expertise is — I figured I might as well come out with it and let everyone know what I've been driving at.

The 'What?'

The initial project will center around a series of technical interviews with people who run aggregation services, either as a multi-farm CSA or a more centralized food hub, where product from multiple farms is pooled and sold through one or more distribution channels. The primary outcome will be a collection of interview materials, documents and case studies, made freely available under Creative Commons or a similar license, which will map each interviewee's user journey and the information architecture that underlies their operation.

The first group of participants that have agreed to be interviewed are Kip Curtis from Ohio State University, who has been developing the Microfarm Project together with Walt Bonham and Jess Hudson of the Richland Gro-Op. Their interview will be on Friday, August 12 at 5pm. After that we will interview Tianna Kennedy from Star Route Farm in Charlotteville, NY, who also owns and operates the 607 CSA serving dozens of farms and independent food producers in the Hudson Valley. I expect that to happen some time in late August or early September, but Tianna has already shared many of her operational details on various podcasts and other outlets, so we may have an open design session to review those materials as a preliminary. That way we can be more targeted and concise when we speak with her.

Look for these and other related events to be posted in advance on the project's GitHub repository. Recordings will be stored or linked there when available. Unless otherwise noted, all interviews will be hosted virtually in the same 8x8 Meet room.

Nate Chang, a User Experience Designer and Data Strategist, has graciously volunteered to guide the technical interviews, with additional input from other designers and engineers in the Skywoman community, which is where these first interviews will be hosted. I encourage any and all who are interested to attend, but I'll warn that these sessions will indeed be technical in nature, with an aim towards forming a rigorous model of the aggregation process, so it may be a bit of a snoozer if that's not your jam.

If you're not exactly into all the technical minutiae, fear not; we also hope to share these materials and insights with a broader audience in the form of a public presentation, which will provide a more digestible and high-level view of what we learn — something of a capstone event for these initial interviews and design sessions. Hopefully we can lay down a roadmap for future development, too, so stay tuned for that!

The 'Why?'

While the near-term goal of these interviews is to zero in on some attainable software solutions that would aid these aggregation services, the long-term goal is what I've taken to calling "The Holy Grail of Ag-Tech", namely: a software system that can connect detailed production data to aggregation, sales and marketing services — and vice versa. So, as an example, once a farmer enters a seeding date and quantity into their crop plan, that kicks off a chain reaction that starts populating additional tables with days-to-harvest, projected yields and inventories, sales estimates, etc. Similarly, if a producer knows how many people purchased vegetable shares for the coming year's CSA, they can estimate how many row feet they'll need to plant for each crop. Bidirectional data flow is the key, which is why in some conversations I've referred to this as the "Projection API," though the concept is more general than a single application or service.

I've experienced the need for this myself, working on diversified vegetable and specialty crop farms, and it's something I hear reiterated time and again on the farmOS forum, in the Skywoman Discord, and growers I know from my days at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. I got a whole bag o' ideas and technical concepts for how this can be achieved, but I think it's important to base this in design and the needs of real food producers and distributors, not just what's technically possible. This is why an open design process and in-depth interviews with the people already operating successful aggregations services like Richland Gro-Op and the 607 CSA, seem like the most natural first steps.

OK, but really why???

Whether they intend to deliver on near- or long-term goals, if these software projects have a prayer of getting off the ground (let alone being maintained), they will require more resources, funding and stakeholder commitment than a purely volunteer project can provide. But personally, I don't want to go the route of a traditional startup or non-profit, always beholden to the next grant or funding round. That's largely out of ethical considerations, but I also don't believe those operational structures are actually capable of effecting these goals.

Instead, I'm hoping this could be the germ of what has recently been termed a "platform cooperative". A platform coop is just a tech platform, similar to how Facebook, AirBNB, Uber, etc, insist they're "just platforms", except it is a tech platform that is entirely worker- and/or user-owned. Imagine something like Seamless or DoorDash, but if the platform (ie, the company, services and the website itself) was 100% owned and controlled by the drivers. Wherever more software development was required, they would be the ones to decide what features were built, who got hired to do it, and how the costs and returns of such infrastructure investments would be apportioned, reinvested or dispersed. Restaurant owners and customers could be granted a share of the governance and/or profits as well, but control would never be ceded to an outside group of investors who had no other interest in the platform's success. There are already some excellent examples of platform coops like these, such as CoopCycle in France, FairBNB in Amsterdam and Italy, and the Drivers Cooperative in New York City.

For farms and food hubs, this could take many forms, and may even entail multiple platform coops, each serving a particular region or a niche market. There could also be different ways of sharing ownership between farmers, retailers and consumers, not to mention the engineers themselves, who are responsible for building and maintaining the software and servers it all depends upon.

I truly believe that the development of such resilient systems is something that can only be achieved through a radically cooperative enterprise. The data underpinning the networks of agricultural production and food distribution is so inextricably complex; it is no accident that this complexity only skyrockets when due respect and full equity is granted to every person and creature involved, as well as the land and overall ecology that contributes to feeding a community. It is a reflection of the social and cultural complexities underpinning how we eat, grow and relate to one another and our environment. I don't think there can be a just and equitable software system, capable of handling all that informational complexity, if it doesn't have social and ecological cooperation baked right into the design and methodology of the system itself.

All of that will of course take time, and will certainly evolve in shape and form if it has any hope of ever being put into practice, but I hope anyone reading this who previously expressed interest in any of these events will now have a better idea what these initial events are about and what they're aiming for. I hope to see you there!