Technology is starting to reshape traditional roles and relationships in global food trade. With deep family roots in farming, fresh produce evangelist Mark Buhl, Co-founder of DataHarvest, is one of those on a mission to marry the worlds of agriculture and high tech. His vision is to create a more direct relationship between growers and consumers, putting farmers at the heart of the story rather than at the mercy of intermediaries.
Ahead of his speech at the 11th Cool Logistics Global meeting in Valencia, 17-19 September, the Cool team sat down with Mark to find out more about his disruptive vision for the future food chain.
Cool Logistics: What was the genesis for DataHarvest and what is the vision?
Mark Buhl: DataHarvest is a technology company that was formed in the global agricultural Eden called the Central Valley of California. Hybridised by deep roots that stretch all the way to Silicon Valley, our goal is to create a unique new perspective on how technology and agriculture intersect and pollinate.
Nurtured to grow from a farmer’s perspective, with varied inputs from all sectors of high dollar agriculture, trellised for automation with technology and big data, DataHarvest is now ready to begin the real harvest of the fruits of our labour and partnerships that we have toiled to produce.
We took real problems we saw on the farms that our grandfathers, neighbours and friends struggled to overcome and we started to question how technology would bring real value solutions to the table.
We immersed ourselves in technology and hype, weeding out the farms of siloed solutions, “snake oil” user interfaces and expensive pictures without real correlation or commercial value. We looked at big data as an immense stand-pipe of opportunity that threatened to wash out the farmers in an overload of the very resource we knew would bring life to the next agricultural revolution.
Yet, like all the farmers before us, we set out with a mission to tame the environment, sow the seeds of change and drive real value in the agricultural space. As in all farming, there must be a pruning or thinning process to produce only the best product with the highest commercial value. And so begins our conversation on blockchain.
Cool Log: So how have you gone about separating hype from reality around the use of blockchain?
MB: It’s important to understand the history of blockchains is not new. Building reliable data structures across the global infrastructure for large numbers of people and applications has been a solved problem for a long time. To solve consistency problems at scale, the use of consensus behind-the-scenes to authenticate the validity of changes and updates to data is also not new. Today, global banking and web ad markets do this to the tune of 100,000s of requests per second.
So why is blockchain different? Blockchain’s big difference allows for networks of consensus to exist outside of the control of companies or individuals. It means that there are less intermediaries and more direct paths between people in exchanges of data, money, goods or services. Removing intermediaries in the food system is absolutely an exciting possibility. The ability for producers to manage and nurture relationships directly with the consumers hint at the possibility of what lies ahead.
There are some important questions to ask yourself when you approach any immutable ledger, however:
- Can what you need to do be accomplished with a traditional database?
- Is what I gained from using blockchain worth the cost?
- Is the network supporting the immutable ledger controlled by a corporation? And if so, how does that really differ from a database?
Cool Log: How exactly could immutability change the culture of agriculture?
MB: By recognizing that data might be our most valuable commodity in what we do every day on the farm, we open ourselves to the possibilities of the next economic revolution. Partnering with companies that own a part of your data is like partnering with companies that get to take part of your product.
Data partnerships should always respect the growers’ ownership of data. The value of data to growers is not a simple commodity relationship. Data collected should be used to improve the value of the actual product. The sooner and more completely that growers adopt a ‘data first’ approach to their growing habits, the more value they will get from the investments made in their data infrastructure.
Can your partners participate in adding to the story of the product? We think this a huge difference in blockchain-first systems. Everyone should want to tell how they helped to bring that product to the consumer’s table.
Speaking of the consumer, do you think they will expect more or less information about their food in the future? If you agree with us that they will be ravenous for this type of data, how and whom do you want to tell that story of the food that you grow? We think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for producers to control and curate the story of what they produce.
We believe it is time for the farmer to ascend to his position as the key stakeholder in the modern food chain. No longer will the parties that bring little value to the relationship set price, mandate frivolous growing schemes, dictate their social agendas, create oceans of waste, or dilute the message of the farmer’s growing excellence.
Cool Log: So what happens next?
MB: Today, blockchain is a tool that a lot of people are starting to talk about. Like the term “the cloud” it is already misunderstood and misused. We wanted to share a few things to keep in mind when reading about blockchain and agriculture. We encourage everyone to take the time to learn about this tool. Anyone that tells you or your operation that you are being left behind by not acting now, has the least understanding of how immutable ledgers will bring value to you and your consumers. Join collaborative technology labs, set out to learn as much as possible, and open your minds to a different way of bringing the story of food to the dinner tables of the future!
Joseph ‘Mark’ Buhl is a 20+ year veteran of the international fresh commodity trade industry. Growing up on a citrus farm in Strathmore, California, he has a firm grounding in the fundamentals of farming and production. Studying undergraduate plant science and agricultural business he received an MBA from Sichuan University in China. This has created a very diverse backdrop for his career. Mark has approached his profession from the perspective of the farmer and has worked to share their tremendous value as the key stakeholder in the global chain of the modern produce industry.
A guest speaker at many top agricultural universities, agritech conventions, and industry events, he joins this year’s Cool Logistics Global conference in Valencia, 17-19 September, with Data Harvest co-founder Ryan Clark to share their vision with the international perishables logistics and transport communities