September 14, 2018

Food Origins: Precision Ag Startup Puts Actionable Data into Hands of Growers

By Stephanie Metzinger

We constantly hear that the collection of data connecting farm to fork is valuable, and Nathan Dorn believes that when it comes to data, more is better. Dorn jettisoned the regular career for the life of an entrepreneur and created a traceability software company called Food Origins with a colleague, Richard Sowers, in 2015. Now it is a 24-7 passion.

Food Origins offers precision yield data collection for hand-harvested crops to help farmers make smarter decisions. Using a low-cost, handheld device equipped with high-tech sensors, Food Origins collects harvest data in real time—including when, where and how fast crops are picked. This information is then passed on to the grower to assist with the three main components of farm decision-making: obtaining relevant data, acquiring insight through analysis, and enabling efficient management.

When the company initially launched, they first decided to capture data that affected the problems the agricultural industry was challenged with every day. “When I was pursuing my MBA, I compared the systematic tools farmers had to solve their challenges in the high value, hand-labor crops to the row crops of the Midwest,” said Dorn. “There was a huge gap between the data available to the produce farmers and the problems they faced.”

A farm kid from the sorghum and corn fields of Nebraska, Dorn first focused on the approach of the lower value crops. How could corn at $3.50 per bushel and 150 bushels per acre afford to detail the yield on a precise meter by meter level, but strawberries at $50,000 per acre could only capture rough yields of arbitrary blocks? With that mindset, he decided to concentrate on developing the tools that could transform decision making of hand-harvested crops such as berries, grapes, lettuce, broccoli and melons.

At first, Dorn and Sowers looked to the decisions Midwest farms made from the massive amounts of data gathered by GPS on tractors and combines. “We found that once farmers knew their data, they changed their equipment, fertilization and seed practices, and in some cases, even stopped farming,” said Dorn. “The common connection was to make more money. It was clear our objectives were to use data for that purpose.”

As the technology advanced and the company matured, Dorn and the Food Origins team started putting data tools into the hands of farmworkers. “The decision makers who make or break our business are our harvesters. If they are our most valuable resource, we need to empower them with data,” he said.

To collect the data, the startup utilizes unique labels with individualized barcodes that are pre-applied to produce packaging. When employees scan the bar codes in the field, the location, package and employee ID is registered and that data is passed into Food Origins’ algorithmic tools. This data then provides decision makers with information regarding the progress of the harvest, the density of the production in the field and the speed of harvest.

Food Origins is taking traceability one step further by assisting growers in understanding the economics of their crops and identifying the break-even point of mechanization and other new tools and technologies at their disposal. Most recently, Food Origins worked with berry farmers to help them assess the efficiency of a machine harvest compared to hand picking. The startup followed 10 workers for a week, collecting hand-harvesting data from each worker. The next week, a harvesting aid was employed and harvesting data from the same workers was again collected. The result? Workers were able to harvest 40 percent faster in the same time frame using the machine.

“We were able to show them, first-hand, how changes in their system made more money for their business and the farm workers,” explained Dorn. “When they viewed their farm with this new lens, they committed to millions in investments that improved the health of their business and quality of their product.”

In addition to allowing farmers to have the information needed to optimize operations, Food Origins is expanding the use of its software to consumers and retailers. According to Dorn, farmers want to grow what people want to buy and part of Food Origins’ future will be to connect the data between farmers and consumers without adding cost.

“Part of our goal is to integrate as many of the decisions as possible to address the challenges of the farmers. To achieve that, we regularly partner with sensor, imagery and automation companies,” said Dorn on collaborating with fellow start-up companies within the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT).

“Starting a company is tough and learning to navigate through all the nuances of running a business can be tricky,” said Dorn, who joined the WGCIT in 2016. “The services that Western Growers offers us, such as legal consultation, financial and marketing services and health care benefits, are incredibly valuable to us. The more Western Growers and the Center can help with taking those organizational challenges off our backs, the more we’ll be able to make a difference for the industry as a whole.”