• WisBusiness

Thursday, October 22, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Technology connects consumers and farmers


By MaryBeth Matzek
Madhavi Krishnan calls herself as a computer scientist who loves food, but she's actually an entrepreneur shaking up how people can buy food in Madison and surrounding communities.

Krishnan, a former Epic employee, launched Square Harvest last spring as a place where farmers and other food producers connect directly with consumers via a website. The site lists what farmers have for sale and consumers pick out what they want. Farmers and other producers – think bakers, cheesemakers and meat producers – drop off the ordered items on Friday at a warehouse where it's sorted and then delivered to customers free of charge on Saturdays.

"It's all about keeping food dollars local," says Krishnan, who spoke last week at the Wisconsin Innovation Network-Northeast Chapter's meeting in Appleton as part of a broader look at the intersection of food and technology. "It's a farm-to-table grocer. Consumers are interested in fresh food and farmers have that fresh food, but it's not always easier to connect. This is a lot easier than standing in a farm market stand somewhere."

Krishnan views her business as a complement to CSAs, which she called a "mystery box – you never know what's inside. We get a lot of orders in after people get their boxes."

She started Square Harvest in March with 10 farmers. That number is now up to 70. "We have low overhead and the food is fresh as fresh can be," Krishnan says.

"Fresh" and "local" are key words with consumers now when it comes to food, says Theresa Feiner, an economic development specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "We're definitely seeing a shift in consumer preferences, especially among millennials," she says. "They want transparency in their food."

Square Harvest is just one example of what Wisconsin businesses and farmers are doing to adapt to this new marketplace, Feiner, says. For example, Roundy's buys produce from local farmers through the Food Hub Cooperative and then sells it at its grocery stores.

"Businesses see the value in investing in local produce," she says.

Just as Krishnan leveraged technology, in her case a software program, others are doing the same to bring changes to the food supply chain, Feiner says. "Technology plays a role in everything from using robotics on the farm to feed and milk the cows to how technology is used in food production and processing," she says. "It's everywhere."

It all plays into how the ag industry is changing in Wisconsin, says Daniel Smith, DATCP's administrator for agriculture development. His department works with farmers throughout Wisconsin to grow and promote agriculture.

"We really want to help farmers be successful. We want to protect our ag diversity, protect our resources and bring in funding resources," he says. "We work with farmers on a variety of issues, from dealing with regulations to succession issues."

As for Krishnan, she's preparing for Square Harvest's first winter, which she admits will be interesting since Wisconsin can't grow crops year-round outdoors. Some veggies grown via hydroponics will be featured as will be some stored crops.

"We're just starting out and have a lot of room to grow," she says. "I haven't looked for capital yet, but I probably will soon. The Madison area has been supportive of us. It's been very exciting."

Incubator moves ahead

The city of River Falls, River Falls Economic Development Corporation, UW-River Falls, and the Chippewa Valley Technical College have received a $1.4 million grant to construct a business incubator to serve the St. Croix Valley region.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration Investments for Public Works and Economic Development Facilities grant will fund the creation and construction of the St. Croix Valley Business Incubator, which will open next fall.

Funding sources for the project include the $1.4 million U.S. EDA grant, a $250,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and a commitment from partners to cover administration and infrastructure costs. The multi-use facility will be designed as a hybrid entrepreneurial center, housing 24 small or start-up businesses and offering business incubation, workforce training and business acceleration services. UW-River Falls will provide a director for the facility.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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