a Hot Link to the Farmer Who Grows the Food
STONE and MATT
meet your farmer.
The maker of Stone-Buhr
flour, a popular brand in the western United
States, is encouraging its customers
to reconnect with their lost agrarian past, from the comfort of their
computer screens. Its Find the
Farmer Web site and special labels on the packages let buyers learn
about and even contact the farmers who produced the wheat that went
into their bag of flour.
The underlying idea, broadly called
traceability, is in fashion in many food circles these days. Makers of
bananas, chocolates and other foods are also using the Internet to
create relationships between consumers and farmers, mimicking the
once-close ties that were broken long ago by industrialized food
Traceability can be good for more than just
soothing the culinary consciences of foodies.
Congress is also studying the possibility of some kind of traceability
measure as a way to minimize the impact of food scares like the recent
The theory: if food producers know they’re
being watched, they’ll be more careful.
The Stone-Buhr flour company, a 100-year-old brand
based in San Francisco,
is giving the buy-local
food movement its latest upgrade. Beginning this month, customers
who buy its all-purpose whole wheat flour in some Wal-Mart,
and other grocery chains can go to findthefarmer
.com, enter the lot code printed on the side of the bag, and visit with
the company’s farmers and even ask them questions.
“The person who puts that scone in their
mouth can now say, ‘Oh my God, there’s a real person behind this,’ ”
said Read Smith,
61, who runs Cherry Creek Ranch, a 10,000-acre farm and cattle ranch in
Eastern Washington. “They are going to bite into that bread or pastry
and know whose hands were on the product.”
site is the brainchild of Josh Dorf, 39, a
disaffected dot.com entrepreneur who got into the food business six
years ago by buying the Stone-Buhr brand
the multinational consumer brands company.
Mr. Dorf gathers
wheat from 32 farmers in the Pacific Northwest
whose methods have been certified
by an environmental organization. That wheat is kept segregated
from uncertified farmers’ wheat while it is milled at a Spokane,
Wash., factory, even though a
single flour sack could contain wheat from as many as four farmers.
“Is it gimmicky? Sure, but it has value.
Consumers have an interest in dealing directly with and supporting the
American farmer,” said Mr. Dorf, who said
he was inspired to create the site by “The
Omnivore’s Dilemma” a book about the damaging effects of a hyperindustrialized food system.
The author of that best seller, Michael
Pollan, a professor at the
University of California, Berkeley, said FindtheFarmer
was one part of a bigger effort to reintroduce trust into the food
If the peanut processing company that was the
source of the recent salmonella outbreak had live webcams
in the production facility, “would it have
allowed things to get so filthy?” Mr. Pollan
asked. “The more transparent a food chain is, the more accountable it
Some in Congress agree and have proposed a
traceability measure as part of the proposed F.D.A. Globalization Act
of 2009, which would give the Food
and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture the
authority to require food makers to trace individual products back to
the farms that produced them if necessary.
Representative Diana DeGette, a vocal
advocate for the provision, said food makers initially resisted the
concept but also wanted to avoid more expensive national recalls, which
can occur when the specific source of an outbreak is not known.
“What many food producers are now realizing
is the cost of upgrading to a traceability system is far less than the
financial losses than they have to take if there is some kind of a
recall,” said Ms. DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.
Mr. Dorf says
the separate manufacturing process adds only a “marginal cost” to each
bag, which is priced around $3, similar to other brands of flour.
Several food companies in the United
States and Europe
are also experimenting with using the Internet to connect customers
with the growers. Buyers of Dole organic bananas in the United
States can now enter a bar code number
on the banana’s sticker on the Doleorganic.com Web site
and see photos and details about farms in Central and South
America. The company said it plans to expand the effort this year in Europe
with a variety of other fruits.
Askinosie Chocolate, a
specialty chocolate maker in Springfield, Mo., also encourages its
customers to enter codes on its Web site and virtually visit its
cocoa bean farms in Mexico, Ecuador and the Philippines — and even read
diary entries from farmers.
British supermarkets jumped on the
traceability wagon early. The Waitrose
supermarket chain lets buyers see information and videos on the farmers
of potatoes, sugarloaf pineapples, papaya and coconut. Customers at Tesco, one of Europe’s
largest retailers, can trace the source of products like watercress.
The wheat farmers, for their part, appear to
be enjoying meeting people at the other end of the food chain.
“We never knew where our wheat went to. The
story always ended at the grain bin and the big commodity operations,”
said Fred Fleming,
59, who operates Lazy YJ Farms in Reardan, Wash.,
which is part of FindtheFarmer.
“Now we can actually have a conversation with
our city customers. We can get back to the old days,” he said.
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