Hacking farming at BattleHack

Everyone please stop “hacking” farming already

As a small farmer currently making a living from selling my organic produce, I want to like your product. I really do. Like you, I want to find as many ways as possible to make it easier for people to get into and succeed in farming.

You wrote in your piece that you haven’t received any feedback about your project yet, so I hope you’ll forgive me for providing you with some from the perspective of an actual small-scale producer and seller.

In the product description for your app, you’ve written:

Onion Square is a marketplace where farmers and urban gardeners can sell their produce directly to their customers. Cut out the middlemen!

And you write:

“We actually made an app to buy food directly from local farmers.”

I think you might want to re-consider your pitch here, because I don’t find it 100% accurate with what you’re doing. Because, when you buy something through an “app,” you’re simply not buying it directly.

When you say you have a “marketplace” to sell produce “directly,” you should probably be more specific and say that you have developed a virtual marketplace. Because anything mediated by an application is not “direct.”

What is direct? When a customer goes to meet a farmer face-to-face at a physical market, an on-farm stand or a drop-off point. In a “direct sale,” the customer hands the farmer physical money in exchange for physical goods. People smile at each other, and say “thank you,” and talk about the weather, etc.

This is direct.

What you’re creating may have its place as a niche product to fill a certain need, and I don’t want to detract from that. But it’s just not “direct.”

Also, you say “Cut out the middlemen.”

But the fact that (1) we as farmers and customers have to use an “app” in the first place is a middleman, and (2) that we have to use your payment gateway — which will take a percentage of our already thin profit margin — is most certainly a middleman.

For the the BattleHack there were a couple of sponsors whose technologies we’ve incorporated in our app. We had to use BrainTree or Paypal, and we could obviously use that to process payments.

BrainTree on their site is listed as being “A PayPal Company.” So, in essence, your choice was PayPal or PayPal, right? Well, in my long history of internet usage PayPal is a completely horrible company to interact with, no matter which side of the transaction you’re sitting on. Ever heard of Stripe?

When a product is sold we send a text message to the farmer with Twillio, and we use Pusher for live updates in our app. Sendgrid was used for sending confirmations an password resets. Finally the app was deployed on Heroku.

So, instead of a direct person-to-person sale, we’re now running that transaction through at least six applications:

  • Onion Square
  • PayPal/BrainTree
  • Twillio
  • Pusher
  • Sendgrid
  • Heroku

Plus any number of intermediary servers, the computer or mobile device of the farmer and the customer.

What happens when your application bridge breaks or doesn’t work right? What happens when a transaction has a problem? While you’re proposing to make things “easier” for farmers, you’ve effectively added an enormous layer of complexity by introducing tools that are outside the control of the farmer. This is usually a risky proposition and more often than not a time-waster: unless you’re able to provide me with access to markets that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.

While I admire your intentions, I think there are some really important practical issues you have yet to consider. If you really want to connect people to fresh local food sources, so they can see and understand how their food is grown or raised, encourage people to go to farms and buy in cash from farmers and to say thank you to them. Farmers need this. We don’t need another app.