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Tracking food, farm to table, is co-op aim

CLINTON -- With the help of blockchain technology, consumers will soon be able to use their cellphones to scan packaged poultry products from Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative and follow the route the products took from farm to fork, General Manager Cody Hopkins said.

"Starting [this] week, we're going to roll this out in all our poultry products," said Hopkins of the Clinton-based cooperative. "Every package of chicken will have a QR code that will trace back to the batch."

This month the cooperative sent a pilot shipment of poultry to Golden Gate Meat Co. in San Francisco, where customers could test whether the tracking technology worked.

According to Heifer International, Grass Roots Cooperative is the first group of small-scale suppliers in the U.S. to use blockchain technology for food tracing. Through Provenance, a United Kingdom-based blockchain startup company, the packaged chicken's supply-chain and farm information is made available to the public in a way that's different from what most food suppliers use.

"When you go to the grocery stores, there's no way to know 'Gosh, where'd this start? Where did it go? How many stages were there?'" Hopkins said.

In the short time that blockchain technology has been around, the technology community has raved about its potential in the financial sector. Created by virtual currency Bitcoin's anonymous founder, the original technology was intended to serve as the immutable public ledger for all Bitcoin transactions.

Blockchain acts as a ledger that can't be tampered with because no individual has full control over the chain. Now the tech community is finding other potential uses for this practically unhackable system, and large corporations are being drawn to the technology.

According to a recent study from Juniper Research, about 57 percent of large corporations -- defined as any company with more than 20,000 employees -- in the world are actively considering or implementing blockchain into their systems by the end of 2018.

In October, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and IBM began testing in China a blockchain system that's similar to Provenance. The system lets the companies track foods to their origins as a way to quickly stop the spread of any food-related diseases or to facilitate food recalls.

Frank Yiannas, executive vice president of food safety at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February that the blockchain test results looked promising and he imagined a day when consumers could pick up a food item, scan it with a smart device such as a cellphone and trace its route through the supply chain.

Annibal Sodero, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has taught his students about the uses and current state of blockchain technology. Sodero said the blockchain technology is still in development, and most companies are racing to be the first to create a nationally or world-accepted standard for the technology.

"It's interesting to see a small organization getting on the bandwagon of a technology that has not become a standard yet," he said.

Limited testing and not-yet-accepted standards for using the technology are two of the risks blockchain users currently face, Sodero said.

"Ultimately, [blockchain] is going to be the final solution [for supply chain operations]," Sodero said. "I'm just not sure if it's the right timing for a small organization to use it."

Grass Roots began in 2014 as a model for small-scale farmers in Arkansas to compete against large food companies. Small-scale farmers have tried to adopt the business model of food giants, but small-scale distribution systems are inefficient, Hopkins said.

To be viable, a few farmers pooled resources and began selling their products under the Grass Roots label. Today 15 small-scale livestock farmers are part of the co-op.

Shortly after its inception, Heifer International recognized the value of the cooperative model and began funding Grass Roots the year that it started.

In total, the cooperative has received nearly $3 million in grants from Heifer, said Sara Brown, business development manager at Heifer International.

The cooperative farmers supply pasture-raised and butchered beef, poultry, pigs and turkeys to restaurants and directly to consumers. Last year, the cooperative developed a monthly meat delivery service to broaden its market range. Recently a San-Francisco-based meat company became interested in selling Grass Roots products. Provenance's blockchain technology strengthened the cooperative's case.

With Golden Gate Meat Co. as a customer, Grass Roots can "expand beyond being a local co-op and begin developing a national brand for themselves," Brown said.

One of the cooperative suppliers, Falling Sky Farm, is north of Clinton in the Ozark Mountains. As gray clouds rolled by Tuesday morning, cows lolled on a grassy knoll; chicks chirped nearby; and pigs, coated in mud, grunted in a nearby thicket.

For owners Hopkins and Andrea Toldt, ethical and sustainable farming is close to their hearts. The livestock are on a rotational grazing schedule, which they said improves the health of their pasture and animals, which in turn means a better product for their customers.

It's too early to tell how customers will respond to Provenance's blockchain technology, but the transparency it offers can validate how small-scale farmers do things differently from commercial competitors. Regardless of the risks involved, Hopkins said, he is excited that consumers will be able to finally "authenticate the journey of our product."

SundayMonday Business on 08/13/2017

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