• Anthony Coble

What is the future of food hub collaboration and how do we get there?


The biggest hurdle for food hub collaboration is the technology that supports them, here is how we can get those technologies out of the way and get hub operators back to delivering great, healthy, local produce.


At Farm Fare, we are avid promoters of food hub collaboration. We talk about it...a lot. And, we talk to a lot of food hubs and supporting software providers on this topic. We hear a lot of desire for collaboration, yet actual collaboration has been very limited. One of the biggest hurdles to that collaboration has been the tools food hubs rely on to do their work. Here are the ways food hub software providers need to change to enable a more collaborative future.


  • Low overhead communication

  • Food hub data sovereignty

  • Network data transparency


Low overhead communication


Most food hubs use a few different softwares today, but those tools generally don’t talk to each other. How does the e-commerce website know how many tomatoes we have? How does the inventory system know how many bushels the e-commerce site has sold? How does the sale get recorded within the accounting software so customers can be billed?


Today that communication generally happens by hub operators exporting and importing the day's transactions between each system. This is a time-consuming and prohibitive process. Most hubs we talk to have additional tools they would love to use but they don’t have time to add it to the list of tools being updated every day. The benefit of the new tool’s efficiency is lost to the communication efficiency.


Now multiply those hurdles by all the food hubs collaborating in a network. One hub comes up short and needs more carrots, do any of the other hubs have any? Do they even know? How long does it take to find out?


Clearly, these tools need to work together, but it’s not that easy. These tools could all provide their own API and every tool could implement every other tool’s API. That leads to an exponential growth problem that is too expensive for any of these softwares to actually implement. The solution is to build a single data source, following a standard format. With a standard, software providers would only need to implement a single API to work with all the others.


Food hub data sovereignty

For a collaboration to truly be a collaboration, no member should be held above another. That includes their own data. While data must be shared to facilitate the operation of a food hub or a food hub network, it should be up to each individual hub who can see their data, not any single software provider.


It should not be up to your e-commerce platform what accounting software you are allowed to use, nor should it be up to your logistics provider which hubs are in your network.


From a software provider's perspective, it is a very scary proposition to give control of operational data to a different company. Sometimes, those other software companies are even competitors in other contexts. The best answer is to make sure none of these providers owns the data so none of them gets an advantage. Hubs and their farmers must own their data.


Network data transparency


In addition to being able to rapidly share data all collaborators must have enough visibility into the network's data to verify that expectations are being met. Every network must define their standards for interactions, such as commission rates on sales between network partners, or equity targets for a network's revenue distribution.


This may sound like it is at odds with controlling who can see your data, but modern encryption techniques can make parts of a transaction viewable by partners but not others. These techniques can enable things like making visible total revenue distribution without revealing who received each amount, allowing enforcement of equity targets, or reveal market information like average purchase price of a bunch of carrots without revealing the contract price a particular school is paying; thus enabling better planning without revealing sensitive details.


The Answer

So how do we achieve a public data store, not owned by any software provider, in which food hubs retain ownership of their data, while also sharing the useful bits and hiding the sensitive ones?


Blockchain.


While already a popular solution for food safety and traceability, they are capable of so much more. Blockchains are capable of all of the requirements listed above. While other solutions are likely possible, nothing is getting the amount of intellectual investment that blockchains are today. The food system should leverage all that ongoing thought to enable a new level of collaboration for healthier people and planet.


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