Tim O’reilly, Open Source and Idealism

This video featuring Tim O’reilly is part of a really interesting set of talks and conversations that is published by the Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner. A link to the whole talk is available here.

A big theme throughout the talk is that O’reilly Media was successful because it was a platform for others. They were basically the biggest hype man for the open source movement. Growing up, our computer room had probably a dozen O’reilly books on linux, mysql, perl and other topics.

This clip I shared really stood out because idealism seems to make a lot of people nervous in way that I have never understood. It can inspire some, but can cause ridicule from others. Technology has dramatically changed the balance of power between big and small businesses. And many of the most successful companies out there are empowering normal people (think Google, Amazon and to some extent Apple with iTunes). I’m really enjoying my ability to help further the same mission Mr. O’reilly describes: create/help build a platform (see goMarketNC and my new friends at the Open Food Web Foundation), promote other people and give them the tools they need to be successful.

To close, here’s a core idea from Mr. O’reilly’s talk: if you’re assured of victory, then who’s going to be inspired when you win? And if you’re too afraid of the giant to stand up and fight it, then you’ve already lost!


Hack your Food System with goMarket

It’s been a busy couple of months here at RethinkAg. In addition to defending my master’s thesis* and other personal milestones**, I have been busy hacking my food system. In short, “hacking my food system” means finding tools out there that can change the way we eat and impact our environment that are transparent and open source. I’m really excited to update everyone about my main project, goMarket, which I previously blogged about under the name “Durham Locally Grown.”

The good news is that project is finally taking off! We had our second market day yesterday and there are a few important ways we are “hacking the food system”

goMarket is a platform

goMarket is different from a lot of other innovative local food businesses out there. We don’t buy or sell anything. We make it easier for farmers and other vendors to sell their products and  co-market themselves. At the same time, we make it easy for customers to tap into this bounty.

goMarket is peer-to-peer

I started goMarket to promote the “peer-to-peer” (p2p) economy because I believe that direct connections result in better outcomes for people and the planet.

Sustainable agriculture seems to cost a lot when we compare it to buying food at Wal-mart. That “cheap food” is built enormous subsidies (at federal, state an local levels) and also substantial costs to human and environmental health. Cutting out middle men gives us an opportunity to build a more resilient system where low-income producers are paid a living wage. When they are paid a living wage this gives them new freedom to make choices on how to steward the soil and other natural resources they depend on. 

P2P makes local accessible

Wal-mart is built upon what ecological theory calls a “poverty traps,” gradual moves where a community can no longer afford anything healthy, sustainable or just. In return for these profits (remember they’re not producing anything), they provide 24/7 convenience and ho-hum products built to withstand a grueling distribution network. Peer-to-peer is a way to reverse this desertification of our economy (and natural resources too), helping communities that normally buy mostly at grocery stores tap into the local food economy. With some planning (eg. planning meals and remembering when the pickup is), we can build a diverse, local, healthy economy that is even more convenient than Wal-mart.

platforms promote diversity

If you look at a Wild Dog Farm in Snow Camp and “hyper-local” farmers inside the city limits, like Homegrown City Farms and Sweet Beet City Farm. We’ve got eggs, cheese (and vegan cheeze!) and coffee and meat and are looking for even more goodies that we can help bring into the food system. (I’d love to help market local wine and dry good staples like lentils, beans, oats, etc. So please reach out if you know someone!) We take care of payment processing and help make shopping a diverse food system convenient for customers (order by Tuesday evening and come pick up a bag of goodies on Thursday, it’s super convenient).

goMarket is on demand

“On demand” means farmers and other vendors don’t pick or produce things that haven’t been ordered. Customers order on Tuesday, so that the vendor knows how much to deliver on Thursday. This means your Beanpeace Coffee is roasted within a day of when you pick it up. It also means those veggies are as fresh as possible.

on demand means less food waste

“On demand” delivery, is that it gives farmers more flexibility. If they don’t sell everything online, they can find other places to sell, or in a worse case scenario: cut losses by calling in the IFFS gleaning crew.

Online marketing also helps backyard gardeners and homesteaders goMarket themselves! Backyard gardens can produce a lot of food and during peak season, sometimes this food is given away or goes to waste. With goMarket you can sell this excess produce, and possibly even use the wholesale market to get your restaurants sold at local food trucks and restaurants! (It’s important to remember though that goMarket is not a place to “dump” excess produce. We discourage undercutting our full-time farmers, though the separate wholesale price system can help prevent hobby farmers from putting full-time farmers out of business.)

goMarket is reproducible & adaptable

Scientific results don’t mean anything if you can’t reproduce them. I think the same thing is true for projects that change a food system. A project that only . Athens Locally Grown helps connect more than 100 farmers, homesteaders and food crafters connect with thousands of customers in Athens, Georgia. Open source food hub packages are under development and will be more flexible and adaptable and I’m really excited to see how they can change the way we eat.

Further resources:

goMarket is a “platform” that provides a virtual “commons” where people gather to buy, sell and sometimes barter foodstuffs. To learn more about the “commoning” movement, check out these awesome | radical | nerdy | resources.


*My master’s thesis in Ecology on the effects of grazing on soil organic matter. (Did you know that grazing ruminants (eg. cows, sheep, goats, bison and others) can be managed to help conserve environmental resources?)
**My partner and I bought a house the same week I defended my thesis and we’re expecting our first child around the fourth of July!

Hack your food system! A manifesto (ok, not really)

It’s been quite a while since I had a chance to put in a meaningful post her at RethinkAg. I’ve been busy “hacking” my food system! More about that is available here.

So what exactly does hacking mean? Hacking is a term that has been used to describe all sorts of online mischief, but the way I’ve been defining the term is:

Hack (v) – to find a tool, improve it, fix a problem, and tell people how you did it

I adopted the term because “innovation” implies a different approach than is most commonly used in local food systems. Hacking is to “inventing” and traditional “innovation” what turntablism is to classical composition. Hacking is a DIY approach of taking samples from different cultures, farms and anywhere else and mixing it up into something new that has been adapted for one’s own situation.

A glimpse of the beautiful and almost magical Homegrown City Farms. Photo Credit: Toriano Fredericks

Hacking is a very simple ethos: let’s make something happen. We don’t always have exactly the right tool and sometimes what we want to do is in a legally grey area. Prominent examples include farms like Homegrown City Farms and Darko Urban Farm that until recent moves by the city and county of Durham, NC were selling vegetables from their urban farm illegally. 

Hacking is impossible without exposure to lots of ideas. On the internet, this exposure is easy if you know where to look (*cough* Reddit *cough*). In farming systems and physical spaces, it can be harder to know where to look and that’s how #Trifoodhack was born. Trifoodhack is a bi-monthly meetup for farmers, local food activists, entrepreneurs and anyone else that wants to build a better food system.

The future of our society depends on people being able to replicate the best ideas and improve and modify ideas that don’t work.

Trifoodhack is an idea I’d been talking about for a long time after starting a meetup for local science bloggers, researchers and other enthusiasts called the #Triscitweetup in January 2012.

I finally met Tori Fredericks and mentioned the idea and he was like “well, what are you waiting for?”

“Someone else to help beat the drum,” I replied. These meetups take some energy to get started and I knew I was going to need help.

We started hammering out details and since Tori and I first met in early February, Trifoodhack has developed into a great forum for ideas to cross-pollinate. Our meetup earlier this week inspired a lot of people (read Tori’s thoughts and check out his photos here). The challenges we face seem immense at times, but sometimes all you need are a few friends and a new way to hack your system.