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Adapting Our Technology in Response to COVID-19

Jonny Hittman is a Product Manager for the Software Engineering Team at Square Roots. The team is responsible for our company OS, The Farmer Toolbelt, which helps us manage and analyze our farms while surfacing traceability data to our customers via the Transparency Timeline.

When I recognized the gravity of COVID-19, my thoughts went to what it would mean for our company, our farmers, and our vision for the future of local food. As a farming company, Square Roots is an essential business. Part of our mission is to grow local, real food for people in cities. Especially now, it’s our obligation to produce food safely for our communities.

Quite frankly, it’s easy for our software team to power through and keep working since the majority of our team’s work can be done remotely with relatively little disruption. But our “designated essential team”—a lean group of people doing farming, facilities, and logistics—are the ones stepping up to a particularly noble challenge. Their daily work now involves growing food and managing the farm while taking extra precautions to keep themselves, their families, and society safe. They are doing more than their part, and our engineering team must do ours by supporting the new needs of our farmers.

As an engineering team, we’ve always had a ‘farmer-first’ mentality, and we know that the technology we build will never replace the farmers. Our goal is to develop tools to empower the farmers to make more informed decisions and streamline operations. We often reflect on our team’s charter when we are planning and prioritizing our work. A few of the core tenets are:

  • “Every efficiency gain, no matter how small, will contribute to our streamlined workflow and empower the next generation of farming leaders by giving them the tools to make smarter decisions and reduce time spent on less fruitful actions.”
  • “This product team builds tools that will maximize the human potential of every person working towards our mission. Every inefficiency or disconnected process is an amazing opportunity for optimization.”

These principles were written by our engineering team several years ago, and I can safely say that we believe them now more than ever. In fact, with the economic ramifications of COVID-19 still unknown, we want to create as many farming jobs as possible in the future—with viable career paths that are attractive to young people and provide a good quality of life.

Despite it being romanticized, farming (yes, even indoors) is difficult and intensive work. Every technological advancement the engineering team makes gives the farmer time back in their packed schedule so they can elevate their decision-making and focus on different and more complex problems. Ultimately, our goal is to reduce the repetitive work typically associated with farming. Before every decision we ask, “How do we enable one person to grow more high-quality food while reducing time and waste?” If any new feature in the Farmer Toolbelt is not pulling at least one lever to answer that question, then we probably need to go back to the drawing board before we build it.

The current circumstances of COVID-19 have not changed our overarching goals, but the priorities of some problems have shifted.

One focus is creating specialized communications tools to reduce errors and save minutes. Since we can no longer rely on typical in-person interactions, we’re building tools for asynchronous communication—enabling the Farm Manager to ensure all tasks are done correctly and on time. And we’re empowering farmers to formally capture more qualitative and quantitative data, providing greater and more structured visibility throughout the farm with less human contact.

Another focus is on more complex solutions to increase the productivity of our operations over time—these are separate from the farmer’s day-to-day needs. For instance, we’re expanding the tools and methods we use for analyzing historical environmental and yield data, which constantly uncover actionable insights to grow more, higher-quality food. Looking across our entire network of cloud-connected farms, and gaining a deeper understanding of how microclimates of the past influenced production, helps us recreate even more ideal conditions in the future, everywhere.

We know that saving a farmer even a few minutes through an ingenious function in the Toolbelt can be incredibly meaningful. The aggregation of marginal gains can have a huge impact—especially as the Toolbelt is the operating system for our whole company and touches literally every person in every department. In a time like this—in which we’re playing our part by staying at home—the engineering team is proud that we can continue to build a platform to advance our operations safely in multiple markets and help people get fresh food when it matters most.