UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An online network that connects producers, suppliers, processors and workers along Pennsylvania’s food supply chain was launched today by Penn State to minimize bottlenecks and avoid breakdowns that lead to food shortages.
The resilience of the state’s food supply is threatened by bottlenecks in the supply chain, particularly with respect to harvest, processing and transportation, according to Patrick Drohan, associate professor of pedology, who spearheaded the development of the network.
“Recent fluctuations in commodity prices and production inefficiencies, caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, have had a particularly strong impact on Pennsylvania’s small producers, dairies and farmworkers, which lack the cash flow to withstand these disturbances,” he said.
Funded by the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the website — “Pennsylvania Agriculture Resilience Network,” found at https://parn.psu.edu — is aimed at helping Pennsylvania agriculture succeed. The website’s tools and network will assist local growers, agribusinesses and workers to survive the economic stress of COVID-19 and future disruptions by providing the means to find one another and directly communicate.
To accomplish that, the network — which can be accessed on a phone, computer or tablet — boasts the following tools:
–“Assist”: This tool helps users track logistics issues and find solutions. Within “Assist,” a user can ask for help, identify the “general agricultural concern” he or she needs help with, and post needs for general or specific types of labor, equipment, seed, chemicals, business assistance and infrastructure aid (such as carpentry, electrical or plumbing).
Next, a user asking for assistance provides his or her contact information and a timeline for when help is needed.
–“Offer Help” is chosen by users who identify the “general agricultural concern” they can help with and list specific ways they can assist. They can post offers of help tied to specific types of equipment, animals or extra supplies they have or skills they possess.
Users also can look for a job by providing their contact information so that a producer or other ag business needing help can contact them and ask for their resume.
If matches exist, users instantly see them, but securely. “We worked hard to make sure people’s privacy is protected when a user makes a request for help,” Drohan said. “Their information is not publicly available.”
–“Supply” is a tool that consists of a Google map populated with entities that can help with nearly every type of agricultural endeavor, including state government, seed mills, nursery operations, orchards, propane sources, fertilizer sources, etc. “The ease of searching in Google, combined with mapping visualization, makes finding solutions quick,” Drohan said.
–The “Resource” tool is in development and will include links to a variety of agricultural assistance sites tied to information, compliance, education and training.
COVID-19 drove the rollout of the Pennsylvania Agriculture Resilience Network, but the seeds of its origin were planted before the pandemic, Drohan pointed out.
“I’ve had this idea in the back of my head for a few years to put together an online network that directly puts farmers in the driver’s seat for finding and getting the help they need,” he said. “I live in farm country, and I see the farmers around me sometimes struggling with the basic logistics of how to get materials and supplies as different sources have gone out of business.”
Drohan noted that he and colleagues developed the Pennsylvania Agriculture Resilience Network because Pennsylvanians have become increasingly dependent on out-of-region agricultural supplies. In-state processing capabilities are limited and no longer centralized, he explained, but agricultural producers, processors, suppliers and workers now can connect using the network.
One of the big areas of interest for Pennsylvania businesses, as it is elsewhere in the country, is finding farmworkers, and this online network will help with that, Drohan contends. “The nice thing about this tool, the way it’s set up, anyone can ask for labor assistance, and anyone can make an offer of labor assistance anywhere in the region,” he said. “And those two people can connect in seconds — that’s a pretty enormous thing right now.”
The network even is translatable in other languages because of the Google Translate feature built into the app to communicate with foreign laborers, Drohan added.
The development of the Pennsylvania Agriculture Resilience Network — referred to as the PARN platform — is a collaborative effort among faculty in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and FarmCorps.
–Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University