New Digital Farm Tool Launches for Farmers
L-R: Eric Chan (BCS), Dana James (PhD Candidate, IRES), Craig Yu (BCS), Susanna Klassen (PhD Candidate, IRES), Zia Mehrabi (Research Associate, IRES and CSFS), Justin Lee (BCS)
Researchers at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems (CSFS) are supporting farmers who want to adopt digital technology to manage their farms more sustainably. LiteFarm is a new mobile decision support tool measuring a farm’s “triple bottom line” – including financial, social and ecological outcomes.
LiteFarm is the first farm management app targeted at diversified farmers, who often manage farms with dozens of different crops and livestock, integrated forest and grazing landscapes, and serving multiple market outlets. It not only tracks real-time, seasonal cost of production by crop, but also reports on a wide number of socio-ecological metrics such as soil organic matter, water use, biodiversity and the number of people likely fed through farm sales.
“Our goal is to make better use of digital technology to enable sustainability transitions in agriculture,” says Hannah Wittman, Academic Director of the CSFS. “We hoped to develop a solution that can support farmers to operate their business in a more financially stable and ecologically sustainable way, and that also helps advance the science of sustainability.”
Enter LiteFarm, a free to use and open-source app developed by the CSFS team of scientists, researchers, designers and software professionals, using the UBC Farm as its test site, along with a broad network of farmers and universities.
LiteFarm allows farmers to log farm operations, quantify revenues and expenses by crop, and will document the records needed to receive organic certification. Additionally, it provides insights into the sustainability of their farms.
Wittman, a Professor in LFS and UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), is interested in how evidence-based decision making, both for farmers and policymakers, can improve the income and welfare of small-holders and the sustainability of food systems. She worked with Zia Mehrabi, a Research Associate with the CSFS and IRES, who led the development of the initial versions of LiteFarm. Mehrabi gathered input from Canadian and Latin American farmers and built on their feedback to advance his vision for developing the application.
Gathering Missing Data
Most agricultural research and funding has been directed at large monoculture farming systems for commodity crops, which has come at a high environmental cost, including global climate change, soil degradation, and loss of biodiversity.
Meanwhile, global empirical analysis is lacking on the outcomes of managing smaller, diversified farms that focus on producing for local markets. LiteFarm makes it easier for farmers to document their operations and make this key data on sustainable farming practices available to researchers and policy makers.
“There are a number of different financial and sustainability tools out there, but they are often used separately. It’s not easy for farmers to integrate assessments of how their sustainability practices trade-off with their finances,” says Wittman. “We are trying to close that gap.”
Designed by – and for – Farmers
“First and foremost, our goal is to make a tool farmers find valuable,” says Kevin Cussen, LiteFarm’s Product Manager. “There are lots of niche farm management tools out there that fail to reach more than a few dozen farmers because they focus on what data they can extract from their users. Instead, we’re focused on listening to sustainable farmers and building the features they need to run their operations. Only by incentivizing broad adoption will we have the data to help drive a larger transition to sustainable agriculture.”
Creating LiteFarm was a community-driven process, involving a wide range of ecologically-minded farmers across Canada and Latin America in prototype testing. Their input drove the team to include a feature allowing assessment of expenses and revenue after hearing that was a huge challenge in diversified agriculture, with one farmer stating in an interview, ‘It drives me crazy that I don’t have cost of production.’
Of this approach, another farm operator said, “I’m very excited about the potential this program has to offer, not only to help the daily management of my farm and employees but also to help me keep track of the paperwork needed to renew my organic certification.”
Cussen said they have piloted LiteFarm in Canada with partners that include the EFAO (Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario), and COABC (Certified Organics Association of British Columbia), and in Latin America with the Rede Ecovida (EcoLife network) of certified agroecological farmers.
“Moving forward, we’ve formed partnerships with similar organizations across Latin America with the goal of working with cohorts of farmers in six South American countries by the end of 2021. We have the ambitious goal of serving 10,000 diversified farmers by 2023.”
The LiteFarm team now includes 10 staff, about half of whom are UBC students.