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


    Circle Fresh Farms is a network of small- to medium-sized greenhouses producing certified organic fresh vegetables. In order to remain competitive and compliant with emerging expectations to provide farm-to-consumer product tracking systems, Circle Fresh needed to create a product track and trace system that was compatible with industry standards and also accessible in cost and complexity for smaller producers.

    After extensive analysis of the existing track and trace system providers, Circle Fresh selected PTI Print to develop an easy to replicate track and trace system for its network of eight greenhouse producers. After extensive assessment of the circumstances, resource constraints and operational dynamics of this diversity of producers, PTI Print and Circle Fresh developed a system that successfully implemented both product tracking and inventory management and financial system integration.

    Financial efficiencies developed during the project resulted in a nearly 50% reduction in the anticipated system installation and operations costs. This enabled Circle Fresh to double the number of farms participating in the pilot project (from three to six).  As part of the implementation of the pilot program, Circle Fresh has also developed a step-by-step track and trace implementation handbook for small-to-medium scale producers and a series of on-line video tutorials to guide producers through all of the major steps in establishing a successful track and trace system.


    Changing Market Expectations Impact Small Farms


    With the rapid internationalization of the food industry, concerns over food safety have grown exponentially. These concerns have been magnified by a series of high profile food borne illness outbreaks that have caused both sickness and death. As a consequence, many producers have been seriously impacted by recalls, as well as general consumer avoidance of foods linked to the outbreaks. Often these producers have no role in the outbreak and may be thousands of miles from the incident. However, without a clear means of demonstrating that their products are not responsible, farmers cannot substantiate the safety of their crops.

    In response to these concerns, the Federal government passed the Food Safety and Modernizaiton Act in 2011 (Food Safety Modernization Act) that significantly expanded previous food safety responsibilities for the food industry. Final rule making for this Act is still in process, but it is clear that the new law will require substantially more record keeping and accountability for primary producers. (See for more information on proposed rules).

    Given these trends in the produce industry, 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 would also have several important market positioning advantages: 1) it would provides small-producer cooperatives an efficient platform for aggregating and differentiating supply; 2) it would enable small producers the ability to maintain brand identity and uniqueness even as they are part of producer cooperatives or marketing consortiums; and 3) it would enable both producers and retailers to significantly improve food safety tracking and risk management systems. 

    Project objectives:

    With these industry standards in view, this project established five major objectives that form the basis of developing and implementing a small-farm produce track and trace system. These five objectives were:

    1. Delineate the critical product tracking factors necessary to meet current and anticipated market expectations.
    2. Identify the critical operational factors that must be considered in designing such a system.
    3. Identify, compare and contrast the five leading options for product tracking accessible to small farmers.
    4. Select and develop a product tracking system
    5. Conduct a six-month pilot project
    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.