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How tech powers community-based agriculture (and access to healthy local food)

Submitted by compassionatec… on June 21, 2017

Image removed.Families struggling to make rent and pay utility bills often find there isn't a lot left in the budget to make healthy food choices. A box of mac and cheese, after all, is much cheaper than a piece of fish and some fresh vegetables – if the latter are even available at their neighborhood markets. Enter technologies enabling community-based agriculture, making locally grown, healthy foods more accessible to more people. It's progress. – Philip Bane

The mission of Farm from a Box is a simple one, according to its website: provide an enabling mechanism for communities to prosper.  "We like to think of it as food sovereignty in a box," say founding partners Scott Thompson and Brandi DeCarli.

In a blog on the Cisco site, DeCarli describes Farm from a Box as the "Swiss-Army knife" of farming – a mobile infrastructure that provides all of the tools necessary for a two-acre farm, which can help bridge the access gap by making healthy food available locally.

"Built from a modified shipping container," DeCarli writes, "each unit contains a complete ecosystem of smart farm technologies to enhance agricultural productivity; from renewable power and micro-drip irrigation to Information and Communications Technology equipment."

Here's what the box contains:

  • Off-grid power that enables it to serve as a micro-grid in remote areas
  • Drip irrigation that helps save water and stabilize crops during drought conditions
  • Internal cold storage to keep crops fresher longer
  • Wi-Fi connectivity to improve information access and exchange
  • A cloud-based IoT system and sensors to help monitor production and efficiencies

DeCarli offers a real-world example.

"We recently teamed up with the United Nations World Food Programme Tanzania and WFP’s Innovation Accelerator to support food and nutrition security for refugee and host communities," she writes. "Our Farm from a Box system will be used to increase the availability of nutritious crops, provide low-cost agricultural commodities and, through increased production, boost the income levels for both refugees and the surrounding host communities."

Farm to table in the UK
“It’s about better food,” Ben Pugh, creator of the Farmdrop online platform and app, told the Independent. “If I am eating spinach that has been cut the previous day from a farm that is 50 or so miles away, I am better for it, and my family is better for it because it's fresher, it comes from closer by."

Farmdrop has been described as an online farmers' market, as it connects consumers with producers, cutting out the supermarkets in the process. In addition to fresh produce, the London-based food delivery service offers organic food, local beers and gins, bread and pastries from local bakeries and grass-fed meat. In March is started offering a speedier next-day delivery service.

The Independent suggests Farmdrop could "drastically shake up the way that the UK food supply chain operates." The app has attracted some 30,000 regular users who get low-cost access to high-quality food, thanks to the Internet.

The producers get a deal too. Pugh said they get a roughly 75% share of the retail price of what's ordered, which is about double what they'd get delivering to supermarket. And it seems to be working; the Independent reports sales have increased about 600% over the previous year.

Whether it is a local school, community group, or remote village in an underdeveloped country, DeCarli suggests that smallholder farmers are the ecological gatekeepers to building a more sustainable and equitable food supply.

Changing the way we eat
BrightFarms is on a mission to grow fruits and vegetables that are fresher, tastier and better for the environment, as its growing methods use less energy, land and water than conventional agriculture.

The New York City based firm finances, designs, builds and operates controlled-environment hydroponic greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, which the company says cuts time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain.

Last fall BrightFarms announced it had raised $30.1 million in Series C funding to expand its innovative, partnership-based business model across the U.S. Currently it operates three greenhouses in the greater Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago metro areas. An interactive map on its site suggests the fruits and vegetables BrightFarms grows are available in a number of local supermarkets in each of those areas – Kroger, ShopRite and Wegmans among them.

BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot told TechCrunch that for now the company will focus on metro areas where the demand for fresh produce is high but the amount of arable land is limited.

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