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Forging a Hot Link to the Farmer Who Grows the Food
The maker of Stone-Buhr flour, a popular brand in the western United States, is encouraging its customers to reconnect with their lost agrarian past, from the comfort of their computer screens. Its Find the Farmer Web site and special labels on the packages let buyers learn about and even contact the farmers who produced the wheat that went into their bag of flour.
The underlying idea, broadly called traceability, is in fashion in many food circles these days. Makers of bananas, chocolates and other foods are also using the Internet to create relationships between consumers and farmers, mimicking the once-close ties that were broken long ago by industrialized food manufacturing.
Traceability can be good for more than just soothing the culinary consciences of foodies. Congress is also studying the possibility of some kind of traceability measure as a way to minimize the impact of food scares like the recent peanut salmonella crisis.
The theory: if food producers know they're being watched, they'll be more careful. The Stone-Buhr flour company, a 100-year-old brand based in San Francisco, is giving the buy-local food movement its latest upgrade. Beginning this month, customers who buy its all-purpose whole wheat flour in some Wal-Mart, Safeway and other grocery chains can go to findthefarmer.com, enter the lot code printed on the side of the bag, and visit with the company's farmers and even ask them questions.
"The person who puts that scone in their mouth can now say, ‘Oh my God, there's a real person behind this,' " said Read Smith, 61, who runs Cherry Creek Ranch, a 10,000-acre farm and cattle ranch in Eastern Washington. "They are going to bite into that bread or pastry and know whose hands were on the product."
The FindtheFarmer site is the brainchild of Josh Dorf, 39, a disaffected dot.com entrepreneur who got into the food business six years ago by buying the Stone-Buhr brand from Unilever, the multinational consumer brands company.
Mr. Dorf gathers wheat from 32 farmers in the Pacific Northwest whose methods have been certified by an environmental organization. That wheat is kept segregated from uncertified farmers' wheat while it is milled at a Spokane, Wash., factory, even though a single flour sack could contain wheat from as many as four farmers.
"Is it gimmicky? Sure, but it has value. Consumers have an interest in dealing directly with and supporting the American farmer," said Mr. Dorf, who said he was inspired to create the site by "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a book about the damaging effects of a hyperindustrialized food system.
The author of that best seller, Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said FindtheFarmer was one part of a bigger effort to reintroduce trust into the food system.
If the peanut processing company that was the source of the recent salmonella outbreak had live webcams in the production facility, "would it have allowed things to get so filthy?" Mr. Pollan asked. "The more transparent a food chain is, the more accountable it is."
Some in Congress agree and have proposed a traceability measure as part of the proposed F.D.A. Globalization Act of 2009, which would give the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture the authority to require food makers to trace individual products back to the farms that produced them if necessary.
Representative Diana DeGette, a vocal advocate for the provision, said food makers initially resisted the concept but also wanted to avoid more expensive national recalls, which can occur when the specific source of an outbreak is not known.
"What many food producers are now realizing is the cost of upgrading to a traceability system is far less than the financial losses than they have to take if there is some kind of a recall," said Ms. DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.
Mr. Dorf says the separate manufacturing process adds only a "marginal cost" to each bag, which is priced around $3, similar to other brands of flour.
Several food companies in the United States and Europe are also experimenting with using the Internet to connect customers with the growers. Buyers of Dole organic bananas in the United States can now enter a bar code number on the banana's sticker on the Doleorganic.com Web site and see photos and details about farms in Central and South America. The company said it plans to expand the effort this year in Europe with a variety of other fruits.
Askinosie Chocolate, a specialty chocolate maker in Springfield, Mo., also encourages its customers to enter codes on its Web site and virtually visit its cocoa bean farms in Mexico, Ecuador and the Philippines - and even read diary entries from farmers.
British supermarkets jumped on the traceability wagon early. The Waitrose supermarket chain lets buyers see information and videos on the farmers of potatoes, sugarloaf pineapples, papaya and coconut. Customers at Tesco, one of Europe's largest retailers, can trace the source of products like watercress.
The wheat farmers, for their part, appear to be enjoying meeting people at the other end of the food chain.
"We never knew where our wheat went to. The story always ended at the grain bin and the big commodity operations," said Fred Fleming, 59, who operates Lazy YJ Farms in Reardan, Wash., which is part of FindtheFarmer.
"Now we can actually have a conversation with our city customers. We can get back to the old days," he said.