Farm Hosting: Electric Mesopotamia

My wife inherited a few baby chickens. We needed a coop. Looking for chicken-coop plans, I instead found farmer-hoster Simon, who hosts and creates web sites for a particular breed of small farmers. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farmers. Simon the farmer is part of a land-use revolution developing online. “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” is much more revolutionary than a hippy farmer wearing a boa and plowing a field.  But the Farmer John land-use revolution couldn’t actually take off until farmer-hosters like Simon started hosting and developing CSA micro farmers‘ web sites.

CSA farming is essentially subscription farming. If you are a food snob and want a certain variety of produce, the CSA farmer will grow it for you, but you have to pay into the deal and take a risk that it won’t grow. In effect CSA farmers host the land for communities of hoity-toity greenies who want to design their food but not buy their own farmland.  CSA farmers host their dirt for as few as 25 dedicated customers up to a few thousand.

Think of it like this: if you want to “blog” your own potatoes but can’t afford to commit to the cost of a dedicated server (buy your own farmland) you subscribe to a CSA farm that will host your personal produce on their farmland.  But if you let a lousy hoster grow your crops you may have wasted your money.  The CSA farmer doesn’t have to provide 24/7 assistance or 99.99% up-time like web hosters but they still have to provide something akin to it.

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Small Farm Central is a small operation that does both land hosting for foodies and web hosting for subscription farmers who themselves host their land for other super persnickety food fanatics who disdain kiwis from Piggly Wiggly’s or watermelons from Walmart.  Simon is himself a lifetime small farmer who hoped to leave the farm forever, but after studying IT at Penn State University saw a way to bring the web to the farm.  Oh well, back to coveralls and mouse-clicking.

Expect to see more of folks like Small Farm Central, since not only do online CSA farms let customers see the face of their farmers, users are also allowed to tromp the dirt their food grows in. Yes, most CSA farms let subscribers walk the fields that host their crops. Online CSA farming sites offer a way for the farmers themselves to create online food bazars, share recipes or discuss crop booms and busts.  On the surface this all sounds very trendy back-to-nature, but it really goes back quite a bit further than CSA farmers imagine. On-line subscription farming may have, once again, transformed money into clay tablets.  Dirt to dirt.

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One of the subtlest aspects of the on-line CSA farm is that money itself evolved from this sort of thing on clay tablets in Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago. This is Agra-deja-vu all over again, since it marks the potential for a micro-agricultural futures market for small farmers.

First, foodie subscribers pay land-hosters (CSA farmers) for future produce. That means foodies loan the subscription farmer the money to plant their crops. In return the foodie subscriber receives the right to those crops from the CSA farmer in autumn.  BUT online, in Ebay- or Craig’slist-fashion, these subscriptions could easily be traded back and forth right up until they are cashed in at the harvest.  This creates a secondary farmers market traded entirely online.  And this is exactly what gave birth to money in ancient Mesopotamia. Only now it’s electric:

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It’s May; I buy a subscription for beets and arugula hosted on Farmer Emily’s field.  Then I sell my subscription on Ebay and say something like “Farmer Emily’s planted farm space, $1,000. Beets and arugula. Crop looks great! Could be worth two thousand in September.”

Over four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, some ancient CSA farmer traded a clay tablet to some ancient foodie for everything he needed to grow a field of barley.  When the harvest came in, the foodie gave that clay tablet back to the farmer who then gave him the barely.  Money was born betting on a future harvest.  CSA farmer-hosters just planted Mesopotamia’s online future’s market.

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