Development of a Digitally Integrated, Low-cost Farm-to-COnsumer Product Tracking System for Small Scale Farmers and Grower Networks

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $24,965.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Brett KenCairn
Circle Fresh Farms


  • Vegetables: cucurbits, peppers, tomatoes


  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study, risk management
  • Pest Management: biological control, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, urban agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    The development of a low-cost product tracking system is an integral element in a larger strategy to create access for small farmers (less than $250,000 - Economic Research Service typology) to larger regional/national fresh food retailers. Such a system has several important potential advantages: 1) it provides small-producer cooperatives an efficient platform for aggregating and differentiating supply; 2) it enables small producers the ability to maintain brand identity and uniqueness even as they are part of producer cooperatives or marketing consortiums; and 3) it enables both producers and retailers to significantly improve food safety tracking and risk management systems. This study is designed to evaluate a series of low-cost product tracking systems that can be easily and efficiently implemented on a small-farm scale and to provide recommendations to producers in evaluating options and implementation strategies. As part of the study, a pilot project will be implemented with a major regional food retailer,Whole Foods, to test the tracking system using the three participating producers. The project is being coordinated by Circle Fresh Farms, a unique marketing and farm enterprise development venture focused on the development of a network farming consortium that enables smaller, locally-based farm operations to achieve economies of scale in production, marketing, distribution, procurement and management. Circle Fresh has seven participating growers in a geographic area extending from Pueblo, Colorado to Longmont, Colorado serving over 20 food retail outlets along with an additional growing market among restaurants and specialty food stores. Like many growers, the small farmers participating in the Circle Fresh network are often unable to sustain the costs and management obligations of some of the valuable but operationally complex systems like full-cycle product tracking that are increasingly becoming a market requirement. In the recent National Produce Marketing Association conference, major national retailers issued strong statements indicating that recent food safety breakdowns are pushing them to require rigorous product tracking systems for all of their vendors. Anticipating this market trend, the product industry founded the Produce Traceability Initiative and drafted its Seven Milestones to implementation of produce tracking. This project uses this foundation as the starting point to build such a program for small farmers. With these industry standards in view, this project has established five major objectives that form the basis of our implementation approach. These objectives in turn were used to formulate a focused workplan. The major elements of this workplan are described below. Product Tracking System (PTS)scoping, assessment and design In this initial stage of the project, representatives of the three producers and their technical assistance provider will carry out three activities. In the first phase—scoping-the critical features of product tracking systems will be identified and summarized. This will include both the features desired or required by the market place and the operational issues facing both producers and purveyors on the implementation side. The second step—assessment—will entail evaluation of the leading PTS systems and identification of the best candidates for small farm circumstances. Finally, the design phase will formulate the protocol and performance metrics for a six-month product tracking pilot project integrating the activities of the three participating producers. Product Tracking Pilot Project Implementation This phase of the project will focus on actual implementation experience of the pilot tracking system selected for evaluation. Information on the performance of the system will be gathered and posted to a web-based observation platform that other producers or interested parties can access to observe the lessons being learned. As part of this pilot phase, the producers have already secured agreement from Whole Foods to also participate in the pilot project, including the development of consumer education kiosks at four stores that will enable customers to use smart phones or other digital readers to scan products delivered from the participating producers and gather information about the product, the company, the timing of harvest, health statistics and other information like recipes or compatible companion products. Product Tracking Outreach and Education In this phase of the project, the principals will share the outcomes of the study with other producers and retailers, as well as provide educational programs at schools.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project has five core objectives:

    1. Delineate the critical product tracking factors that must be effectively monitored as part of a product tracking system. (Month 1-2)

    The criteria for tracking system selection will be based on the critical system performance factors identified by both producers and their wholesale/retail customers. The project team will coordinate a series of interviews with both producers and wholesalers/retailers. The focus will be to identify the primary objectives/benefits each group desires from a tracking system. In addition to producer/purveyor interviews, the project team will also research emerging trends in both market expectations and public regulations regarding food safety.

    2. Identify the critical operational factors for both producers and retailers that must be integrated into any tracking system. (Month 1-2)

    In addition to identifying the market and regulatory requirements and expectations, the project team will also work closely with producers and wholesalers/retailers to identify what features/consequences would be fatal flaws for successful adoption and use of such a system. This will help inform the development of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the tracking pilot program developed in this project.

    3. Identify, compare and contrast the five leading options for product tracking accessible to small producers (<$250,000 annual sales). (Months 2-5)

    The outcomes of the action steps for each of the preceding objectives will provide the information to build a framework/matrix of desired tracking system features and outcomes the team will use to review the available marketplace of tracking systems that can deliver these performance features.

    4. Select and develop a product tracking system for use by three participating producers. (Months 4-6)

    Based on the evaluation matrix, a series of three to five finalist tracking systems will be selected for more in-depth analysis. This will include direct contact with the vendors as well as interviews with existing system users. Using this information, a system will be selected for the pilot project.

    5. Conduct a six-month pilot project testing effectiveness, cost and operational viability of the tracking system designed in this project and summarize findings. (Months 7-12)

    The participating producers have already secured agreement with Whole Foods to work with the producer group to test a product tracking program at four of its stores in the Front Range of Colorado. Whole Foods will assist in monitoring the tracking systems effectiveness for both food safety, delivery and inventory efficiency and customer information. As part of the consumer education elements, Whole Foods will help with the development and promotion of product tracking and information kiosks at four of their flagship stores in Denver Metro. This will enable the project to evaluate both food safety and product marketing values of the tracking system.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.