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One Straw Farm launches Kickstarter campaign to build apps

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Imagine, with a few finger flicks on a smartphone app, you can learn whether you'll be getting zucchini or tomatoes, strawberries or potatoes, from a Maryland farm each week, then browse for home-spun recipes and connect with other like-minded consumers.

One Straw Farm, one of Maryland's largest independent agricultural operations, wants to build that app — and bring a new level of tech savvy to community-supported agriculture.

Joan and Drew Norman, the owners of the farm, believe they can craft mobile apps to make their work more efficient and better connect with their customers. They've been farming since 1983 on 172 acres in northern Baltimore County.

They've launched an online crowdfunding campaign, through Kickstarter.com, to raise $30,000 to pay for the design and development of two apps. One app would help them connect with, and inform, their customers each week during the harvest season. Another app would help them with mobile record-keeping, tracking their crops from field to market.

"I'm very excited about it," Joan Norman said. "Even if the Kickstarter fails, I don't feel like we've failed. We're just getting started."

The Normans aren't alone in turning to smartphones to advance their farming business. Dozens of agriculture-related apps, such as a fertilizer cost calculator or an app for logging cattle records, exist in Apple's App Store. Farmers are often out in the fields or at marketplaces — far away from a desktop computer — and are turning to smartphones as their computer-on-the-go.

S. Patrick McMillan, an assistant secretary with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state's farmers are using new forms of technology to help save time and money.

"I can tell you farmers generally have embraced information technology and have some sophisticated applications that utilize geospatial technology in the fields," McMillan said. "They use it for precision farming, for when they're running their equipment over the fields. They can collect vast amounts of information. They can record [harvest] yields in specific places of their fields."

Farmers are also increasingly using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to reach and engage consumers, said Kelly Dudeck, executive of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council, a statewide nonprofit that supports farmers.

"A change I've really seen in the last few years is social media and farming," Dudeck said. "It's a whole new avenue. Before social media came along, it was really hard to get a farmer to brag about what they do. They're pretty humble."

Now, the Normans are broadcasting far and wide on the Internet that they're looking to raise money to fund their apps' development. So far, their Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $5,800.

But Norman said the campaign has also drawn the attention of more than 10 developers who have offered to build the apps, in some cases for free.

The project is being guided by Callie Neylan, an independent interactive designer, and Will Dixon, a tech product manager, who are friends of the Normans. Neylan used One Straw Farm as a case study for her students in a class she taught last semester at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The students did research on how One Straw Farm could use the iPhone to better run its business and interact with customers.

Neylan said she focused on designing a mobile app instead of a desktop app because the Normans are always on the move.

"They're not at a desk or a coffee shop, they're out in a field," Neylan said. "This really needs to be mobile first."

Neylan and Dixon will work directly with developers to design and engineer the apps. Neylan said if the app turns out well for the Normans, they could build similar apps for other independent farmers, too.

One Straw Farm has been one of the pioneers in Maryland of community-supported agriculture, where farmers sell directly to consumers. The Normans own 82 acres in White Hall, and farm an additional 90 acres owned by others.

The farm sells what it calls "shares" as part of the community-supported agriculture program, basically a one-time subscription fee for a summer of produce. It has about 2,000 members, Norman said.

The Normans deliver packages of vegetables to members in more than 40 locations around Baltimore. They also sell their vegetables to restaurants and at local farmers' markets.

"You could change their lives if you could just tell them what they're getting ahead of time," said Neylan.

The first app the Normans want to build would help them and their 20 workers organize their work on the farm. The app would help their laborers, many of whom speak Spanish as a native language, properly label the produce for customers as individual shares are packed for the pickup locations.

The second app would be for customers to use, and could include pictures and notifications of the veggies they pick up each week, as well as recipes and ways to connect with other community-supported agriculture members.

"We're not content just doing the same thing we've always done," said Joan Norman.

Information on the Kickstarter campaign can be found at kickstarter.com/projects/neylano/one-straw-farm-mobile-apps.

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