From Google to Real Time Farms

Karl Rosaen was certainly part of the computer high-tech culture. He applied his skills at Google to their AdWords program and was part of the team that launched the first Google Android phone in 2009. But he then decided to employ his programming expertise in a place it was badly needed: our food system. Today his site, Real Time Farms, enables anyone in the US to trace their food back to the farm it came from—whether staying in or dining out.

“I’m a native Michigander, and I have a background in technology,” Rosaen told Calmful Living. “I love to program and went to the University of Michigan and studied that. Afterward I got a job and moved out to the Bay Area to work at Google, and I worked there for a few years. But then I wanted to move home, and I also really wanted to get into entrepreneurship and start a tech company. While I was out in California I started to think more about the quality of food and where it came from, just from the values out there, and also just from the availability of great food. That’s how the idea for Real Time Farms came to exist.”

The site, founded and run by Rosaen and his wife, Cara, makes it possible for people to locate nearby farms, artisans, farmers’ markets and restaurants—currently 4,800 providers nationwide and counting. The site is “crowd sourced”—meaning that if someone visits the site and sees that their favorite farm, artisan or restaurant is missing, they can upload the information and pictures right away. Each provider has its own profile, showing location, photos and specialties.

The user—for whom the service is free—simply enters his or her zip code, and a map with locations of the type of vendor being sought immediately comes up. A click on one of the vendors and details are shown. Then with a click on the name of the vendor, the user is taken to that vendor’s own profile.

Decide for Yourself

Interestingly, Rosaen is leaving issues such as organically and sustainably raised up to the consumer. “We don’t prescribe exactly what we think people should eat,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be local, and we don’t try to say what we think is sustainable; but we do think if you don’t know where it comes from, then you have no idea and you can’t really make a decision based on what your values are.

“The biggest mission we have is simply to make the whole food system traceable, whether you’re cooking at home or going out to eat—being able to find a place where you know the ingredients could be traced back to the farm.”

Getting Up and Running

Finding farms and restaurants and connecting them to the site took some work, as you can’t simply put up a website and expect everyone to find it. Rosaen utilized a bright idea to kick-start the site. “We started a program several years ago called the Food Warrior Program,” he explained. “It ran for six seasons, and we essentially had an educational internship that we rotated through different regions of the country. It was sort of like a virtual correspondence internship. Participants would get published on our blog and get feedback on their writing from members of our team, but they would also go out and document farms and farmers’ markets, doing interviews and writing about their experiences. It was good experience for them, but it also generated lots of data for Real Time Farms along the way.”

Today farms and farmers’ markets come to the site, and consumers upload their favorites as well.

Narrowing It Down

Recently Rosaen found a way to reach a particular segment of the public that vitally needs his information. “I think we realized that we’ve been working on this for a couple of years, and to really make an impact we needed to pick where we want to focus and do one thing at a time,” Rosaen continued. “The scope of our mission is huge—everyone eats every day. It could be everything: groceries, farmers’ markets, restaurants. But now, through a partnership with award-winning website, we’re focusing more on the home cook. They reach about a million and half people a month. We’ve partnered with them with the goal of taking the information and sensibilities of Real Time Farms and making them accessible to the everyday home cook.

“If people are cooking, they’re in a place where they can give some thought to their ingredients. They could think about what they could cook utilizing the best ingredients available where they are right now. We could filter all the recipes based on that information, for example.”

Into the Future

For the future, there is only growth. “The future for Real Time Farms is to keep the site growing with more information about farms and farmers’ markets, and keep Real Time Farms itself a great reference tool that will continue to stand alone,” Rosaen concluded. “We want to keep capturing more and more information about the food system.

“On the consumer side, we’re really excited about taking that information and making it relevant to people through Food52. There they’ll be inspired to cook, and as they are, we can start to show them information about how good a recipe is, based on how good its ingredients are. We can really effect change through getting people to think about ingredients and where they come from.”

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