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And on This Farm There Was a Web Site . . .

Tom Davenport developed FarmFoody.org to connect farmers with individuals interested in buying their crops.
Tom Davenport developed FarmFoody.org to connect farmers with individuals interested in buying their crops. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The social-networking craze has transformed the way we stay in touch with friends, listen to music and play the dating game. Tom Davenport believes it can also help change the way we eat -- and benefit the planet in the process. Davenport, 68, who raises beef and peaches on the Fauquier County farm where he grew up, is one of the partners behind FarmFoody.org, a Web site that lets locals and small farmers link up and share information from harvest updates to family recipes. Since FarmFoody went live less than a year ago, nearly 750 farms and foodies have joined, and a Facebook widget is in the works. We talked to Davenport about the site and the future of sustainable food.

How did you come up with the idea for FarmFoody?

I started out making films -- fairy tales and then documentaries. In 1999, I had the idea that video would be big on the Web and that we could put small American folk documentaries together and archive them. . . . I'm no spring chicken; I was born in 1939. But I always used computers as soon as they came out, and my wife did, too. We created a Web site, Folkstreams.net, and put it up ourselves. The Internet allowed audiences to connect with niche films, so I thought, "Why couldn't they connect with niche farms?"

How long have you been farming?

I moved back here in the 1970s and used [the farm] as a base for my film career. My father was handling the farm into the mid-1990s, and I had to take it over. I had to give up filmmaking for a while and try to save the farm. It was very important to us as a family.

We began planting peach trees and direct-marketing beef and using the Internet extensively to do this. We would update the Web site almost every day, and it became a tremendous tool for us. But it was outside the realm of possibility for a normal farmer. Or a normal farmer who didn't have a wife who was an expert Web designer. So then we decided to just jump in. One of my partners, Steve Knoblock, a programmer who lives in Arlington, brought up the social-networking idea.

How does FarmFoody work?

It offers a way in which farmers can set up a Web presence and change it very easily. Farmers can post pictures and videos and create bulletins for customers who have pages. You can get a bulletin that says, "The strawberries are ready," or "No, we don't have any today." Another helpful feature is that farms can post FAQs, answers to frequently asked questions.

It's also different from other Web sites in that instead of links being based on things like your favorite bands, our issue was, where are you? Agriculture is related to land, so we had to create a mapping system that allows people to find and link up to farms near them.

What more will FarmFoody offer in the future?

We think we can have vineyards join. Eventually, it could be international. There's no reason why it couldn't be. People are complaining in China now that food isn't as great as they remember it being in little villages. But we're starting small around Washington and then expanding.

Have you noticed an increased demand for local produce since "green" went mainstream? What about agro-tourism, the experience of visiting a farm? Do more people want to do that these days?

The irony of the local-food thing is that some people use it as an excuse to drive all the way from D.C. in an SUV just to get one peck of peaches. It would take 40 men to push that car up our hill and back! The amount of energy we use for our whole peach orchard would be equal to maybe two or three trips from D.C.

Now, having said that, people are doing it because it's cheaper than flying to Disney World. People want to come out on a day trip, pick things and drink wine. People want something they can do close by, and most of the time, they have to use cars. Someone told me that if you do a full accounting of the fossil fuel energy used in [producing] foods, the main culprit is people driving to and from the supermarket, not trucking it out here from California or Peru. It sort of bursts the bubble. But I think people are doing it because they feel good.

What would be a better alternative?

The ultimate local thing would be gardening, because you don't have to go very far. People should be plowing up their lawns. Around World War II, everyone had a garden and dried their clothes in the back yard.

It's interesting that the phenomenon of local victory gardens and seeds is taking off like crazy now. Part of it is the price of food and gasoline. Even if you live in a suburban area and you only have one-quarter acre, that's a lot of ground. If everyone in a neighborhood tears up their yard, people can exchange foods. FarmFoody would be ideal for this. You can have a community, just like in the old days, and people get to know each other through a market system: "I've got zucchini; you've got raspberries. Let's trade."

-- Eviana Hartman


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