Small Farms Are Staying in Business Because of These (Crop)Mobsters

In the United States, 96 percent of farms are family-owned. And despite an increase in hunger worldwide, one-third of the food grown by farmers never makes it from farm to table.
Nick Papadopoulos, CropMobster’s CEO, uses technology to help eliminate food waste and empower local farmers.
An online platform called CropMobster allows farmers and buyers to exchange products that would otherwise end up in landfills. When a farmer has a surplus of food to sell or donate, an online network is notified, and a buyer can purchase goods directly from each farm.
This supports local farmers, who often can’t sell enough of their products to stay in business. To date, the organization has saved a million servings of food from ending up in a landfill.
To learn more about CropMobster, watch the video above.

5 Ways to Stop Killing the Planet With Wasted Food

One-third of the food we grow is wasted every year. That adds up to 1.3 billion tons of food thrown in landfills around the world. And that food, instead of feeding hungry people, sits in landfills and slowly releases methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping atmospheric heat.
And food is wasted at every level of the food-distribution pyramid: Farmers don’t harvest misshapen yet perfectly tasty vegetables; truckers’ loads are rejected by stores; and spoiled produce ends up in trash cans around the globe.
Some individuals and organizations are now fighting these trends. Here are five ways to combat food waste at every level.

Pick Up a New Hobby

Americans throw out about a pound of food every single day. And, somewhat surprisingly, the higher quality your diet, the more food you are likely to waste. That’s because health-promoting vegetables and fruits also require substantial resources to bring to the market.
Composting is a simple solution to fight food waste. Whether it’s apple peels or egg shells, composting offers a use for food scraps that would otherwise sit in a landfill. Composting speeds up the natural decay of organic waste and creates a nutrient-rich soil great for gardens. Cities across the country offer compost collectives where people can learn the basics of composting. Many composting organizations pick up scraps and offer drop-off locations for food waste. Cities like Seattle, Denver and San Francisco all have curbside compost pickup and other cities are following their lead.
Another easy hobby: making jam, pickles and preservatives. Jamming and pickling are simple strategies to use nearly spoiled produce. Cucumbers about to go bad? Try pickling them. Or maybe a few apples are past their prime — try turning them into apple sauce.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a good resource for how to make jams, jellies and preservatives.

Buy Ugly Foods

People tend to buy the prettiest peaches and the most vibrant peppers, leaving their “ugly” brethren behind. So companies like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest are changing the norms about what food should look like.
Hungry Harvest is an “ugly” food subscription service. They purchase unsellable produce directly from farmers at low cost. The company then ships it to customers in a weekly subscription box. The customers save money, the food ends up in bellies and the farmers make a profit from what might have otherwise gone to waste.
Imperfect Produce offers its produce at a 30 percent markdown.
“Hopefully it’s a pipeline to get as much of that food as possible out of that field and into people’s fridges across the country,” says Imperfect Produce CEO, Ben Simon.

Support Food-Donation Nonprofits

Grocery stores have the final say when produce is dropped off. If the bananas are overripe or the tomatoes too small, then the produce might be rejected. Truckers are on tight schedules, so they don’t have many options on what to do with unwanted food. Sometimes the simplest solution is to drop it in a dump, but that’s usually associated with landfill fees, not to mention a terrible environmental impact.
Food Drop, a pilot initiative by the Indy Hunger Network, is intervening. Food Dump reaches truckers before the truckers reach the dump. By pairing truckers up with the nearest food banks, they save the truckers’ time and money, cut back on food waste and provide people in need with fresh food.
In the five-month pilot, the initiative saved 87,000 pounds of food. The programming is now expanding across the entire state of Indiana.
Other organizations have similar programs. Food Cowboy has a hotline where truckers, caterers and events can offer leftover food to charities in need.

Leverage Technology

Technology is becoming a popular tool in fighting food waste. Everything from mobile apps to software can be used to track and reduce waste.
Copia, a technology company focused on food recovery, works with cafeterias, caterers and other business to redistribute food to food banks. Copia redirects about 60,000 pounds of food each month.
“We’re a tech-enabled logistics company, like Uber, that matches people who have excess edible food with people who need it,” says Copia’s CEO, Komal Ahmad.
Copia’s software analytics can also help businesses understand where there’s consistent surplus, so that they can adjust their orders. So far Copia has recovered a million pounds of produce and served over 900,000 meals.

Push Policies

Several organizations are kick-starting movements to change policies around food distribution and waste on local and national levels.
For example, Food Policy Action tackles food waste on a national level. Its mission is “to promote positive policies, educate the public, and hold legislators accountable for their votes on food and farm policy.”
The Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University is an opportunity for students to use legal and policy tools to interact and effect change within the environmental, economic and health sectors of our food systems. Students work with individuals and communities to help them understand and improve their food systems, as well as help shape food-waste legislation.
More: 6 High-Tech Innovations That Could Solve Our Food Waste Woes

3 Vet-Focused Companies Helping Soldiers Adjust to Civilian Life

Most people have switched jobs at least once, but transitioning out of the military is an experience most civilians can’t fully understand.  To soften the transition, many veteran-run organizations step in to make the process easier. Here are three organizations that epitomize comradeship.


The nonprofit Veterans to Farmers grows more than plants. The Denver-based organization uses agriculture to help vets reintegrate into civilian life, one lettuce patch at a time. They offer eight-to-10-week training programs in hydroponics, aquaponics and in-soil farming at no cost to veterans who apply — some may even qualify for a stipend.
“We have every background of veteran,” says Rich Murphy, co-founder and executive director. “Some want to grow food for family, some want to learn about agriculture, and some show up for no reason.”
In 2013, Murphy, a third-generation U.S. Air Force veteran who had served in Security Forces for five years, was building a career as a social worker in Denver. There, he met Buck Adams, a former Marine, who had the idea to hire vets to work at his greenhouse. With interest in urban farming and homesteading, Murphy didn’t hesitate to shift gears, and he and Adams co-founded Veterans to Farmers. “We knew that combining veterans and farming could have huge positive impacts for both communities,” he says.
The positive effects of getting one’s hands dirty are real. Take Eli, who served in both the Army and the Marines before being dishonorably discharged after a mental breakdown. Because of his mental and physical disabilities, he was struggling to adjust to civilian life. He heard about the program online and drove from Kentucky to Colorado.
“He was dealing with PTSD and there was an individual war inside him,” says Murphy. After completing two courses, Eli enrolled in college and was able to have his dishonorable discharge adjusted into an honorable one. He still gardens and now owns five acres.  
“It takes energy to go after what you need,” adds Murphy. “We have to get these people engaged, to hang out in the field, planting, reintegrating.”
Five years and more than 100 veteran-graduates later, the organization isn’t slowing down. It is currently building another 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in Fort Collins, Colorado, and launching a homesteading course that will include beekeeping as well as chicken and hog care.


Hardships in the military are not just for the enlisted. While life in the armed forces is marked by a nomadic nature, spouses and families can have a hard time settling into their communities. To combat that sense of isolation, Homefront Room Revival aims to boost morale through purposeful custom home projects across North Carolina.
“People think that you’re always going to move out,” says founder and executive director Katelyn Tinsley. “So you never really move in.” Homefront Room Revival wants to change that by helping military families find a comfort in the “chaos of military life.”
Tinsley knows what it’s like to feel lonely and unenthused about her home. After almost five years as a mental health tech for the Air Force, she found out that she was pregnant with a second child shortly after her husband was deployed.
“Chasing my 1-year-old and coming home to an empty house gave me anxiety,” she says. She started decorating to make herself feel better — transforming her space into a home filled with thrift-store pieces and flea market finds — which helped her get her bearings during a tough time.
This gave her an idea: bring joy to others, one redecorated room at a time. Tinsley started picking up home décor projects for friends, and eventually launched Homefront Room Revival in 2016. The program relies on volunteers — currently that includes more than 200 service members and spouses — as well partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and the local arts council.
Not only does the organization help families settle into their homes, but it provides a creative outlet for its volunteers and upcycles furniture that would have otherwise gone to waste.
Last December, Homefront Room Revival launched Dec’ the Deployment, focusing on holiday decorations. The team spruced up eight homes, including one with a newborn whose mom “just didn’t have the energy” to put up a tree because her husband was deployed.
Tinsley sees the project as an important way to support military families. “It’s a unique way to get people involved and have that personal connection of [having] outreached to those who wouldn’t be touched otherwise.”


A house is something many of us often take for granted, but for veterans, homes play an important role in their integration back to civilian life. Veteran homelessness is a serious problem. The National Alliance to End Homelessness finds that there are more than 40,000 homeless veterans — almost 10 percent of all homeless adults.
Green Extreme Homes CDC in Garland, Texas, is a nonprofit providing homes that are discounted as much as 50 percent to veterans and their families, and the homes themselves are anything but ordinary. The concept is simple: take old, drafty houses and completely gut them into not merely energy-efficient homes, but into Zero Energy Ready Homes — a  Department of Energy program that applies rigorous coding standards to new homes, with the requirement that they’re at least 40–50 percent more energy efficient than a typical new home.
“We are way above current codes and next current codes,” says Steve Brown, builder and president of Green Extreme Homes CDC, adding that their construction standards are more aligned to home guidelines for the year 2030. Each house they remodel features optimized plumbing, solar power hookups, efficient insulation and Energy Star appliances, which can translate into utility bills of around $2 dollars a day.
To create these eco-centric and affordable homes, Green Extreme Homes CDC teams up with volunteers from local veteran coalitions and corporate initiatives, including Citi, which has collaborated with the nonprofit since 2011.  
The team is currently working on a seven-bedroom group home in Lewisville, Texas, for women veterans with or without children.
“Right now, there are 97 women veterans living in Dallas-area shelters,” says Jean Brown, executive director of Green Extreme Homes CDC, whose family boasts four generations of veterans. “We can take in 15 to 20 female vets and provide them a home and a nurturing environment. There is no time limit for how long they can stay [in order] to get back on their feet.”
The group home, which will have a hydroponics system to help the women grow their own food, is in early development. As the project progresses, the team, including a small army of Citi volunteers, will work together on everything from landscaping to furniture assembly in preparation for the grand finale next spring.  
“It starts with housing,” Brown says. “Once you have a roof over your head you can find employment and mentoring.”

This article was paid by and produced in partnership with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veterans’ service organizations and leading veterans’ champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the fifth installment in a series focusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured outdated information on Homefront Room Revival’s volunteer count and partnerships. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

How Church-Owned Property Can Help Communities ‘Grow’

Over the past decade, there has been a push for ecological conservation within the Christian faith, motivated by concerns over how climate change might impact human welfare.
That movement has coincided with an uptick in the number of faith-based farms, many of which equate divinity with sweat equity and its bountiful results.
Where those two movements intersect sits Plainsong Farm & Ministry, a community-supported agriculture farm and ministry, located outside of Rockford, Michigan. Plainsong runs its own CSA program, solely with produce it grows on church-owned property. “How we take care of our land is an expression of our religious values,” says Nurya Love Parish, one of Plainsong’s co-founders. “Our land is an opportunity to create partnerships and relations toward greater ecological sustainability.”
Plainsong is part of a trend of the faithful growing food on unused church land. And since the church owns so much land — after centuries of buying up property and being gifted land by the worshipful, the church is certainly one of the largest landowners in the world — this represents untold acres that could potentially be used to grow food, scaled to parishes around the world.

Church farm 2
Members of Saddleback Church volunteer at the church’s “Peace Farm.”

But there’s a hitch: No one knows exactly how much land the church owns, or how much of that land is even arable.
“Churches owning land made sense in 1880, but now its almost 2020 and we haven’t had a purposeful approach to the stewardship of our land,” says Parish. “Especially garden projects on church-owned land.”
But this is changing, Parish adds. “In the past, we had 40 people [in the fields farming] wheat for the church.” That fell out of favor with the advent of large-scale industrial farming. “But now this is possible [again], and on a larger scale.”
In Rancho Capistrano, California, church-land-grown crops feed Saddleback Church’s parishioners, many of whom rely on the church’s food pantries each week for fresh produce. The land, which is managed by Saddleback pastor Steve Mahnke, was originally owned by the now-defunct mega-church Crystal Cathedral. It was sold to the owners of the craft superstore Hobby Lobby, which was then bought by Saddleback for $1, says Mahnke.
Mahnke, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, used the 1.5 acres of church land to build out 20-foot-long raised planters and a well-water-fed irrigation system. The garden yields enough food to feed up to 1,400 families each month, he says.
If 1.5 acres feeds up to 1,400 families each month, imagine how many families 1,000 might feed, asks Parish.
Church farm 3
A member of Saddleback Church gathers crops for the local food pantry.

“As we’re looking at issues around climate change, there is a greater need for regenerative agriculture,” Parish says. “But there isn’t a comprehensive inventory, even within denominations, of land they hold.”
Parish is trying to change that. Earlier this year at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention — a triennial meeting of church leaders — she proposed legislation for the church to appoint someone to gather land ownership information for the specific purpose of regenerative agriculture projects.
There have been other successes in mapping church land ownership for social impact. In 2016, the organization GoodLands — founded by Molly Burhans at the beginning of her discernment process to become a nun — asked the Catholic church to map out how much land it owned around the world. One estimate puts it at roughly 177 million acres. (In 2012, The Economist published an investigation that found Cardinal Dolan was New York City’s foremost landowner.)
“A fundamental way to address many of the issues we confront as a society today is to use the land and properties we already have more thoughtfully,” the organization’s website says. “GoodLands provides the information, insights, and implementation tools for the Catholic Church to leverage its landholdings to address pressing issues, from environmental destruction to mass human migration.”
GoodLands partnered with ESRI, a global mapping organization, and built out the Catholic Geographic Information Systems Center, which has mapped over 35,000 parishes as of 2016.
The hope, Burhans told the Boston Globe, is to “[wake the hierarchy] up a little bit to the enormous potential they have to really change the world and do good through careful and thoughtful property management.”
The tradition of farming within faiths — including Islam and Hinduism — is something that could be an easy sell for churches that own lots of land, says Nicole S. Janelle, executive director of the Abundant Table. The Abundant Table is a Christian-based non-profit in Ventura County, California, and its farm yields enough food to feed two school districts in the nearby cities of Oxnard and Santa Paula.
“The Christian tradition is agricultural,” Janelle tells NationSwell. “You’re digging into your agrarian Biblical tradition, growing food to share with others, gathering around a table of abundance to share the gifts of God’s creation.”

This Chef Serves Up a Future for Struggling Kids

When Carmen Rodriguez was two years old, his grandmother would put him in a makeshift baby carrier and take him into the fields as she picked produce. Growing up, he traveled from Chicago to Texas, North Dakota and California with his migrant farmworker family, picking melons, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and corn. The first meal he ever cooked was bean and cheese burritos, strapped to the radiator of the family car to keep them warm.

Rodriguez’s grandmother and great-grandmother.

His home base was a rough neighborhood in Chicago, and as the only boy in the family, there was no one to protect him from the gangs. When he was eight years old, a l4-year-old boy was being forced to jump into a Latin gang and, as a rite of passage, “had to beat the crap out of the first kid he saw. I was that kid,” Rodriguez says. His survival instincts kicked in, and instead he beat up the older kid. The gang recruited him that day. He ran away from home at 13 and lived on the streets of Chicago. He ran packages for the gang, broke into homes for the gang, robbed people on the street and sold drugs for the gang.
But after a dressing-down by the local police, he decided to get a job. He started washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, lying about his age. One day, one of the line cooks didn’t show for his shift. Rodriguez decided to help the line and “when the chef came into the kitchen and saw that I was on his line cooking his food, he grabbed the dish that I had just cooked, shrimp scampi, and launched the dish, bowl and all, against the furthest wall in the kitchen. Chef then grabbed me by the back of my neck and screamed in my face, ‘I pay you to wash fucking dishes, not fuck up my food!’
“When I told this to my gang friends, they wanted to burn down his restaurant. I think this is when it hit me that what I was doing with the gang was not going to get me anywhere, so I convinced them that it wasn’t worth our time. I returned to work the next day, and started cleaning and washing dishes. Chef got there and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re not a punk.’ He took me under his wing and taught me all about the business of restaurants. Chef passed away five years ago, and I learned that he had tasted my shrimp scampi, and that’s how he knew that I was not a punk.”
Rodriguez worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager to sous chef to executive chef. His credits include some of the top restaurants in Santa Barbara, Tampa, Palm Springs, and Santa Fe, where he now lives. In 2012, he was named the New Mexico Chef of the Year, awarded by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Two years ago, Rodriguez was contacted by Labor Of Love, which promotes and celebrates the 50,000 largely invisible and unrecognized migrant farmworkers in Yuma, Arizona, by performing “random acts of kindness” like delivering boxes with Thanksgiving dinner and supplying them with blankets and cushions. As Rodriguez delivered 500 gourmet meals to the farmworkers, “the memories of when I was a young boy working in the fields started to creep back into my mind,” he says. “I saw my grandparents sitting around on their breaks and talking about the food we were picking, and how one day we’d be out of work. Then I heard my grandfather say eso nunca va pasar: “Our people will always be in the fields.” The past suddenly slammed into the present and the future, and I knew that I had to give back, to help kids who were lost and troubled and in survival mode like I had been.”
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.

Back in Santa Fe, he and his wife, Penny, had worked tangentially with YouthWorks, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit for at-risk kids. Last year, Rodriguez sat down with Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks’ executive director, to discuss a brewing crisis: 1,500 young people turn l9 in Santa Fe every year, and over 40 percent of them never graduate from high school, making it difficult for them to land regular employment. Because of the high price of rentals, thousands of them are effectively homeless.
Schuyler had a dream for the future of the YouthWorks Culinary Program, and Rodriguez was the dream person to run it. Rodriguez immediately agreed to the job, knowing how education and positive encouragement can improve young lives. “I have seen immediate satisfaction in my customers,” Rodriguez says. “But to see a young person who has had so many problems in his or her life, be able to look you in the eye and speak to you with confidence and respect, is more satisfying that any comment I have received about my food from a guest.”
The Culinary Program has launched a wildly successful food truck. With Rodriguez and his wife at the helm, they serve up affordable and delicious dishes like charred brussels sprouts tossed in spicy Korean barbecue sauce ($7), with a $2 add-on of achiote pineapple chicken. For sweets, customers love the Pig Newtons –– two graham cracker biscuits filled with spicy pork-belly candy, bacon and fig jam ($6). And the YouthWorks Catering Service is cooking at public and private events for high-profile clients like the American Institute of Architects, the Mayor of Santa Fe, the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum and the Nation of Makers Conference.  
It isn’t always easy when kids are having problems and don’t show up for work. “My job is wrangling sabertooth kittens!” Penny jokes. But the satisfaction outweighs the tough stuff. Kids who are successful in the program are getting placed in local restaurants.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.

Erin, one of Culinary Program’s young apprentices, says it’s the most fun job she has ever had. “Everyone wants to be bettering their personal situation, and I’m working with some of the hardest-working people I know.” she says. And Jackie, a former student who is now a sous chef at YouthWorks, says, “Working with YouthWorks and chef Carmen in the kitchen has brought a new purpose to my life. Teaching and learning how to cook and put on events has opened my eyes to the bigger need of food and food service in my community. When I watch the crew in action, it makes me proud and you can see them also being proud of themselves.”  
Rodriguez recently placed another YouthWorks alum, Joe, in a friend’s restaurant as a pantry cook. A month later, Joe called him to say that the owner was so impressed with his skills that he was promoting him to the hot line. “In my toughest chef voice that I could muster, I told Joe, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ and he answered ‘Yes, chef.’ I had to pull over and wipe tears of pride from my eyes. I knew how the Italian chef had felt when he tasted my shrimp scampi.”

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown

After working as an industrial fisherman for decades and witnessing the devastating effects of mass-fishing, Bren Smith decided to look for more sustainable ways to feed the planet.

A few years ago, he developed an unique, vertical 3-D ocean farming model: a sort of underwater garden composed of kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters. Those species are not only edible and in high demand, Smith explains, but they also act as a filter for nitrogen and carbon dioxide, rebuilding natural reef systems and restoring our seas. In 2013, Smith launched the nonprofit GreenWave to help other fishermen replicate his innovative farming model. “This is our chance to make food right and agriculture right,” he says.

Learn more about Smith’s journey and his vision of what tomorrow’s seafood plate looks like by watching the video above.

Special thanks for The University of Connecticut and Professor Charles Yarish.

MORE: Will Cars of the Future Run on Algae?

Why Are Only 1 Percent of Farms Using This Eco-Friendly Practice?

On a 30-acre orchard in Lovingston, Va., an experiment in Edenic coexistence is taking place: where commercially grown (and chemically sprayed) apples once grew, a herd of 120 goats now wanders between rows of trees, chomping on weeds, thistles and fallen Ginger Gold, Gala and Fuji apples.
Known as silvopasture — the symbiotic integration of livestock and trees — ForeverView Farms’ model prizes “regenerative farm management,” which Brett Nadrich, the farm’s director of business operations, defines as “leaving the soil and ecosystem better than we found them.” Ending pesticide use and providing locally raised meat free of growth hormone and antibiotics, this practice is sustainability taken to the extreme. And there’s the additional environmental benefits of protecting the soil from erosion, boosting water quality and ensuring biodiversity, as well.
“We’re taking our first harvest to market in the next few weeks. This is an active process for us. Part of generating consumer demand is raising awareness about the challenges we face and grounding those challenges in local ecosystems, local culture and the local economy,” Nadrich tells NationSwell.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 179 million acres of land are primed for silvopasture like ForeverView’s model, but between 2008 and 2012, the federal agency assisted in preparing only 2,000 acres. In total, according to the last agricultural census, only 2,725 farms (out of 2.1 million nationwide) graze livestock under forested areas or employ alley cropping, another environmentally-friendly practice, which involves planting crops and trees side-by-side on the same land.
Why have so few American farmers signed up for this forward-thinking style of farming? For one, most probably haven’t heard of agroforestry or silvopasture’s benefits for grazers like cows and sheep and browsers like goats. ForeverView Farms is using its proximity to Washington, D.C., to boost the farm’s exposure and people’s knowledge of sustainable agriculture. Nadrich can count off 10 food policy issues on which he has advised policy groups about. Foremost among them, he wants to see more support for workforce development to inspire young people to join agriculture and train them to be successful. He references George Atlee Goodling, ForeverView’s director of farm operations, who’s lived in Nelson County his entire life. “Atlee has a passion for farming, but without the founding of ForeverView Farms…, there wouldn’t necessarily be this type of job available,” Nadrich says. “If we want folks to have access to this type of high-quality food, we need to create jobs for the people who raise it.”
Nadrich, who works in the district, says he’s advocating his positions to policymakers, as well as to chefs to serve the farm’s goat meat and duck eggs. One of the most common refrains he hears is, “I didn’t know you could eat goat.” But once the conversation moves beyond that point and he’s able to explain ForeverView Farms’ overarching mission, customers are usually eager to offer their support.
“The general public has a lot of the same questions about broader benefits: ‘Why should we be interested in your product as opposed to some other goat meat or duck egg?’” they ask him. “It’s a broader environmental and nutritional benefit,” he says. “Allowing our goats to browse rather than having them cooped up allows the animals themselves to be healthier. That not only produces an end product that is healthier for the human consumer, but also more delicious.”

4 Startups Revolutionizing How Food Is Produced in the U.S.

Ask city dwellers what an American farmer looks like and it’s likely that they’ll describe an image reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting: a man sporting overalls and a John Deere hat, bouncing his daughter on his lap as he steers a combine through his corn fields. In truth, today’s agrarian ideal is much different. Instead of rusty tractors working the land, fields are hooked up with the same modern technology used in Silicon Valley.
As part of our continuing coverage of FarmNext’s nationwide listening tour on food and young farmers, NationSwell talked to a few tech-savvy individuals building systems that can more efficiently feed America.


Trevor Witt, a third-year student at Kansas State University in Salina, spends most of his days flying unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. He’s involved in a project in the school’s entomology department — with “the bug guys,” as he says — studying techniques for early detection of invasive species. Witt spent the summer mapping sorghum fields, looking for evidence of an aphid that can ruin an entire harvest in just a few weeks. “If you can detect that aphid early on, you can spray that specific area to get rid of it,” Witt explains. With a camera shooting in high-resolution visuals and near-infrared imagery, Witt’s drone flies over fields of crops, looking for a shiny, sugar-dense resin on the top of leaves and a black underside — the telltale sign of this aphid’s infestation.
Witt, who dates his interest in unmanned aircraft to his high school shop class, says the primary goal of his research at K-State is “dealing with information overload.” His team is “translating all this data that we can collect and make actionable solutions,” he says. “Earlier, using satellites, the data pixel had a 15-acre resolution; now data pixel resolution is sub-centimeter. It just gets significant amounts of data even in the smallest field.”
For now, the farmer must take action against the infestation himself. But eventually, perhaps a decade from now, a grower won’t have to do a thing: he’ll have another drone or self-driven tractor that can automatically spray the area. “That’s the end goal when it comes to mapping,” Witt says. Unmanned aircraft systems aren’t the end-all solution, he concedes, but it’s “an extra tool in the toolkit.”

The Henlight helps chickens maintain high egg production levels, even during winter months. Courtesy of Edward Silva.

Solar Power

To lay the optimal number of eggs, a hen needs a full 16 hours of light. That’s an impossibly high bar for small farmers to reach during the winter, when a December day at California’s Riverdog Farms, for example, only receives eight and a half hours of sunshine — causing production to drop anywhere from 30 to 60 percent. (During that time, chickens continue to consume the same amount of feed.) Most large farms employ artificial lighting to stimulate production, but the cost can be prohibitively high for small-scale farmers to invest in the technology.
Egg producers “take those seasonal changes pretty hard,” says Edward Silva, who developed a solar-powered supplemental lighting system called Henlight as an undergraduate at University of California, Davis. Programmed by software, the Henlight “comes on in the morning hours, a little before sunrise. The very darkest days, it comes on earlier,” he says. “It doesn’t wake [the chickens] up. Eventually they rustle up, but what’s happening is that laying hens receive the okay to reproduce through a gland on the top of their head.”
According to Silva, who grew up on a farm in the Central Valley, field data from one coop using the Henlight in Capay Valley, Calif. saw a 20 percent boost in egg production — laying an additional 2,253 eggs — compared to a control group. Sold at $3 a dozen, the farmer made $563, meaning that he got a return on the $450 investment in the first year.
“There’s this movement where tech in ag is becoming much more democratic,” says Silva. “Smaller farms can optimize their operations as well. With Uber, anyone can be a taxi driver; with Aribnb, anyone can open a hotel. In agriculture, with a lot of precision sensors, with smartphones and drones, the systems are allowing small-scale guys to be competitive with what’s existing on a bigger level.”

Graduate student Donald Gibson in his greenhouse. Courtesy of Donald Gibson.


Donald Gibson is trying to grow a better tomato. A graduate student at University of California, Davis is using cutting-edge biotech that would allow tomato plants to grow with far less phosphorous, a vital nutrient (along with nitrogen and potassium) that’s increasingly costly and environmentally damaging to extract for fertilizer. When lacking phosphorous, a tomato expends much of its energy expanding its root system. By identifying and switching off the gene that activates that response, the fruit could grow with much less of the nutrient.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have earned the wrath from the organic crowd for altering a plant’s fundamentals, but Gibson argues his research will make agriculture sustainable. “Today we’re seeing a major shift in advances in plant breeding. There’s been a boom in the biotech field in the last 20 or 30 years, a technology revolution and also a biological revolution. Now finally, we’re using brand new technology and adapting that to select better and better plants,” he says. “When it comes to GMOs, it’s actually getting a lot better from the consumer perspective.” Most of the innovation in the field has benefited farmers, but the next generation will benefit consumers with products like a potato that doesn’t bruise or an apple that doesn’t brown as quickly.

Data Analytics

FarmLink is employing analytics to help farmers decipher big data and turn it into actionable items, moving agriculture from maps on paper that tracked annual yields to create more precise information. “There is plenty of data out there, and the data increases every day. It’s not that we need more data,” says Kevin Helkes, FarmLink’s director of operations. “Farmers are saying they need to know what to do with that data.”
Helkes compares the farmers’ fields to a front lawn. “There’s always that part of the yard that’s higher, where the grass grows taller. It’s the same thing in the field. Farmers know that year over year, this area is higher and this area is lower,” he says. What’s new, though, is that data analytics will be able to tell a farmer how productive those high and low areas could potentially be. Instead of a grower learning the hard way that he’s been wasting money on a fallow spot of land, FarmLink can communicate in advance how much he can expect from an area.
Agriculture’s first great revolution was switching from a donkey towing a plow to a tractor trailer. Now, agriculture has reinvented itself with new improvements in genetics and feed. This is called Ag 3.0.
(Homepage photograph: Courtesy of Gregory Urqiaga/University of California, Davis) 

What Are the Latest Farming Innovations in America? This Group Is Touring the Heartland to Find Out

“American farmers are a dying breed,” a Newsweek cover story tolled last spring. The splashy headline was eye-grabbing, but the narrative of aging farmers and agricultural decline is closer to myth than fact. More and more young people are joining the time-tested profession, bringing new technology, ideas and environmental consciousness to farming.
Just who are these millennials heading into the fields, and why are they doing it? It’s a question Young Invincibles, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on youth engagement, along with Global Prairie, a digital media and marketing firm in Kansas City, will be asking on a nationwide listening tour, FarmNext: Giving Voice to the Next Generation of Food Producers. The group will host its first meeting at University of California, Davis today, followed by stops at Kansas State University, Virginia Tech and Iowa State University. It all culminates in a summit at the nation’s capital this fall.
NationSwell will be following the conference as it hops around the country, bringing you stories about young farmers’ perseverance and innovation in the face of challenges. We’ll focus on how we can incentivize young people to do the crucial work that stocks our markets with food; how drones, mapping and the latest inventions are changing the business of agriculture; and how America as a whole can bridge the divide between rural and urban communities.
“I think we’ve seen the millennial generation as a generation that has been let down by traditional institutions, whether that’s the real estate market, Wall Street, government,” Tom Allison, Young Invincible’s policy and research manager, tells NationSwell. For young people, “there’s a cultural search for something authentic, and you can’t get more authentic than reconnecting with the land, growing your own food and becoming part of the ecological system in a way that maybe has been lost in previous generations.”
These 80 million teens and twentysomethings — idealistic, socially, tech-savvy and penniless, if you believe what the media says — compose a growing share of the country’s workforce. Agriculture’s no different. While some indicators, like the average age of the “principal operator,” may appear to show farmers are getting older, those aren’t exactly accurate. “A lot of times a family might designate the oldest person in the family, out of respect and tradition, even if Grandpa isn’t necessarily doing as much work or making the business and ecological decisions of the farm,” notes Allison, whose family operates a small vineyard in Virginia.
Most other numbers reveal a millennial-driven business. The median age for non-management farmhands is 37.4 and for miscellaneous agricultural workers it’s 34.1 — both far younger than the median age for all occupations: 42.3. Another way of measuring the age of the workforce, the share of jobs held by millennials (16 to 34 years old), reveals that in fields like agriculture and food science, 41 percent of jobs are held by young adults.
Those figures are expected to grow. While the number of students majoring in agricultural studies remains low overall — 1.8 percent — its growth is skyrocketing, with a 39 percent increase over the past five years.
“There’s attributes that make us uniquely adapted to the agricultural industry,” Allison says. “We have collaborative approaches to work. Even though it is one person toiling in the soil, it really takes a whole network across the industry: the folks selling the equipment through the food chain pipeline to the buyer. Young people are also so adapted to technology. Agriculture relies more and more on predictive analytics to inform decisions on what to grow and when, GPS or drones to identify problems in the field that are too big or too small for one person or a crew to identify and big applications for food chemistry.”
Farming is not as easy or romantic as it sounds, as Allison can attest. It’s “not exactly Norman Rockwell,” he says. There’s days in late spring when you light a fire at the end of your row of vines to ward away a frost, tend it all night, then have one flock of birds eat your entire crop the next afternoon. There’s days in late summer when the salty sweat burns your eyes under 100-degree heat. But even for all the hardship, the rewards of harvesting something from the soil are attracting a new group.
“The numbers are there,” Allison adds. “Young people are getting into farming, both because they care about it and because there’s a lot of opportunities there.” Which is good news for the rest of us, since our dinner depends on it.

The Number of Farmers Is Dropping. So How Will the U.S. Continue to Feed the World?

According to last year’s report on agriculture from the U.S. Census, the American farmer is aging. The percentage of farmers and ranchers over the age of 75 grew by 15.1 percent between 2007 and 2012, while the number of farmers and ranchers under the age of 54 decreased by 16.1 percent during the same time period.
Several programs are trying to entice veterans into the agricultural field, while the AgrAbility Project, which helps older and disabled farmers gain various forms of assistance, is helping existing farmers to plant, shepherd and harvest longer.
In Colorado, the program enables Dean Wierth to tend to his herd of goats in Park County, despite his declining balance and vision. Using an electric cart, he is able to feed and tend to the livestock living on the 40 acres he owns, plus the additional 40 acres he leases.
“It’s been a godsend. My balance was just about gone,” he tells the Denver Post about the AgrAbility program.
For 16 years, Goodwill Industries and Colorado State University have run the AgrAbility program in Colorado, helping 538 farming and ranching families during that time. Recently, the federal government kicked in $720,000 to fund the program for four more years.
Wierth, a disabled Vietnam veteran himself, is now pitching in to start a facility that will teach veterans how to farm and ranch. South Park Heritage Association and the Wounded Warrior USA Outreach Program are currently raising funds to purchase land for the program.
Robert Fetsch, co-director of the Colorado AgrAbility Project says, “Most farmers and ranchers don’t retire; they just keep on keeping on as long as they can. Our best course for now is to help them stay active and working, so they can continue to thrive, remain independent and be loyal taxpayers in their communities.”
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