A focus on the future of farming

A team of School of Computing students placed first in the recent Social Innovation Hackathon, an event where teams worked to create innovative solutions for social impact challenges that growing organizations are facing today.

Hosted by the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Social Impact at Smith School of Business, the Hackathon is part of the Experience Ventures program that challenges university students to make an impact alongside real-world innovators through project-based experiences. Experience Ventures offers five types of entrepreneurial thinking placements including the Hackathon.

The challenge the teams were tackling was presented by Kingston-based GreenReach Farms. Owner Peter Gilbert created a four-season, sustainable indoor farm designed to grow leafy greens using hydroponic methods, a technique that required no soil. Conceived as a pilot program for the Kingston region, his goal was to “test and demonstrate the effectiveness and viability of local, controlled environment.” He planned to make his findings publicly available, as part of his mission to “advance sustainable agriculture and local food security initiatives.”

In addition to his physical farming solution for improving Canadians’ access to healthy, locally grown food, Gilbert had also started on the design for an app to make it easier for all farmers to sell their produce directly to wholesalers and grocers. Through his research, Gilbert found it was easier for managers at Canada’s largest grocery store chains to order produce from California than it was to source it from a farm down the road, resulting in more imported food and less locally grown produce.

This is where the teams in the Hackathon came in. Gilbert wanted the students help with the app’s design.  

The team of Colin Ko, Liam Harper-McCabe, Anthony Grecu, Azeem Kahn and Aadam Lalani from the School of Computing, won the Hackathon with their Farming Forward app that facilitates the purchases/selling of local crops, seed and produce where all parties in the supply chain save on cost by supporting local farming as opposed to international imports.

“I personally feel our focus on ease of use in the design was very important. We used a ‘two-click model’ to make it as accessible as possible,“ fourth year student Kahn explained of why their team won the Hackathon. “We didn't want to force people to make drastic changes in thinking or culture to adopt the use of the app, represented in our tag line ‘Where Technology meets Tradition’. Also, making sure and thinking about profitability for all parts was integral and set us apart from many teams, after all if it's not, nobody would switch.”

Their key distinct feature in the app is the tailored viewing experience based on whether the user is a farmer, wholesaler, restaurant, or grocer.

“The students were inspiring,” says judge Cher Powers, Business Development and Commercialization Manager, Ontario Centre of Innovation. “All of the teams delivered polished presentations and truly considered the needs of their client and the end users of the product. I truly believe that an interdisciplinary approach to innovation is critical to solving complex social challenges and achieving the UN Sustainability Goals. This Smith School of Business hackathon event is a great example of the effectiveness of this approach, and it was my privilege to be a small part in it.”

Harper-McCabe highlighted the key features of Farming Forward that resonated with the judges:

  • A map showing the proximity of everyone involved to maximize efficiency and reduce transport costs
  • The ability for grocery stores/wholesalers to post large orders and for multiple small local farms to be able to fulfill the order together (This is important; almost combining the power of small farms to make a mega-farm, allowing farmers to compete on a global scale)
  • A rating system to provide credibility for all
  • Traceability: tracking every order and ensuring safety and providing invaluable market data
  • Using already in place transportation systems/trucks and maximizing the efficiency of routes with the map

“I would like to congratulate Queen’s University and GreenReach Farms for bringing the very real challenges facing local food producers into light for students,” said Steve Duff, Chief Economist, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, & Rural Affairs. “In a world of globalized agricultural markets and international food distribution, the ability of local food producers to meet the needs of local consumers outside of one-on-one direct sales are very limited. Major Canadian grocery was once able to lean on the quality and availability of local food production but in recent decades, this has become a very infrequent business relationship across Canada. This weekend’s hackathon is an excellent opportunity to throw some of Canada’s brightest business minds at a local problem that requires local solutions.”