One of Americans’ favorite weekend pastimes, shopping at the local farmers market, was among the multitude of activities destroyed by Covid-19. Farmers, of course, were most affected, as many saw considerable revenue losses. But consumers lost something, too.
“We lost knowing where our food comes from,” says Gunnar Dinkla, a precision agronomist at agronomic services company Advanced Agrilytics. “Grocery stores are still an option but the personal connection with farmers got eliminated.”
Dinkla, along with teammates Kennedy Papian, a visual designer at Corteva Agriscience, and Gabriel Popoola, a postdoctoral appointee at Sandia National Laboratories, set out to solve this problem at the Forbes Under 30 Agtech+ Hackathon this past weekend. The group was tasked with discovering how farmers could achieve both sustainability and profitability through regenerative agriculture, which, in turn, could help restore the health of America’s soil.
Thus, Marketplace was born. The team proposed building an online platform to connect sustainable farmers with equally like-minded sustainable consumers. Their website would function first and foremost as an online farmers market, where consumers could search for local produce or meat in their areas and be connected to farmers who are selling their products. Much like in-person markets, farmers would pay a vendor fee for access to Marketplace.
“If I’m a consumer and I want strawberries that are organically grown and the farmer uses this certain sustainable practice, I could search that and find that that farmer is 27 miles away,” Dinkla says.
It would also operate as a social networking site, much like LinkedIn, Papian says. Farmers could connect with fellow farmers to share sustainable farming tips and tricks, as well as interact with consumers to answer questions about their products and farming practices.
“If a farmer has a surplus of tomatoes one week, he could put it out on the social site and see who needs any,” Papian says. The site would also feature educational videos, aiming to teach both farmers and consumers about the latest trends and sustainable farming technology.
Lastly, Marketplace would operate community gardens to test and explore various sustainable growth techniques. Farmers could see how these sustainable practices work on a smaller scale before bringing them to their own farms, Popoola says. Consumers would also benefit, as they would see increased access to locally and sustainably grown produce.
“In areas where we have food deserts or we don’t have good access to grocery stores, it’s an opportunity especially with community gardens that if we can promote sustainable practices and educate people, we can eliminate food deserts,” Dinkla says.
However, the team ran into one big problem: the cost for farmers to commit to fully sustainable farming practices.
“This isn’t cheap. Converting your whole farming lifestyle to a new one, it will take some work. It will take some loss in revenue,” Papian says. “Our big idea to solve that problem is finding companies that realize the need to foster sustainable practices and getting them to donate to this idea.”
Hence, the team decided Marketplace would operate as a non-profit. They would partner with large companies looking to increase brand awareness of their mission to invest in sustainable programs and solicit donations from them. These companies would gain a financial tax incentive, and Marketplace would use these funds to give subsidies to farmers that want to make the switch to sustainable farming.
It’s a win-win situation, because there are a lot of companies that want to invest in sustainable agriculture, but might not have the knowledge on how to do that, Dinkla says. That’s where Marketplace comes in.
“When you boil it down, the problem is food insecurity on our planet. We need to be able to produce food in a way that is safe for the environment, provides farmers a manageable living and everyone should go to bed with a full stomach,” he says. “If we can check those three off, I think we can tackle the problem of food insecurity.”
Team members: Kennedy Papian, Visual Designer, Corteva Agriscience; Gunnar Dinkla, Precision Agronomist, Advanced Agrilytics; Gabriel Popoola, Post-doctoral Appointee, Sandia National Laboratories.