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How Microsoft and Purdue Ag are working together to help Hoosier farmers

Even before COVID-19 strained Indiana’s farmers and complicated the how, when and where of food buying, Hoosier farmers knew they needed a better way to market their product to consumers. That’s why the College of Agriculture in collaboration with Microsoft is launching the Hoosier Food Market, a website where farmers can sell directly to consumers with no overhead costs and flexibility for the producer and customer.

“There are other online platforms that do something similar, but they can be pretty costly to the farmer,” Amanda Deering, clinical associate professor of food sciences and one of the two Purdue project leads, said. “Many say the buy-in is upwards of thousands of dollars a year and the platform also takes a percentage. We wanted to create a system that acts as a bridge, not a business.”

Deering added she’d heard demands for this platform for some time, but COVID-19 magnified its necessity. Ariana Torres, assistant professor in both horticulture and agricultural economics, is the other project leader. She added that right now, a platform like this could save the livelihoods of small to medium sized farmers.

“COVID came and changed the supply chain,” Torres said. “Farmers are pouring out milk, throwing away crops because they have no outlet to sell through. As we are practicing social distancing farmers have begun reaching out independently to consumers to try and facilitate sales. This website will formalize that process.”

While Deering and Torres had been planning a project like this for some time, COVID-19 made ramping up a necessity. Through the college’s partnership with Microsoft, Deering and Torres were able to see their ideas spin quickly into reality.

“Farmers are pouring out milk, throwing away crops because they have no outlet to sell through."

“Working with Microsoft allowed the turnaround to happen very efficiently,” Deering reflected. “We could not have done this without them in this time span.”

The benefit, however, isn’t one-sided. Ranveer Chandra, chief scientist with Microsoft Global Azure, said the tech company has been making inroads into agricultural initiatives for years, developing a better understanding for how to sustainably feed a growing population. Connections and collaboration with researchers in higher education are essential to this process.

“Purdue Ag is at the cutting edge of research in agriculture by inventing technologies to sustainably feed the world,” Chandra said. “In this case, Purdue and Microsoft were able to come together to solve an immediate need – to connect growers and customers. Researchers in Purdue Ag provided the agricultural knowhow – what farmers need, what farmers market makers need, how consumers can convey their demand and be connected to farmers. Microsoft researchers and engineers deployed the Open Food Network open source solution and incorporated features based on feedback from the Purdue collaborators. The solution was made reliable and performant by deploying on Microsoft Azure."

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Ariana Torres speaks with a farmer at the Lafayette Farmers Market pre-COVID-19.

The researchers and engineers at Microsoft and Purdue will employ Hoosier Food Market as a pilot, and integrate with the bigger research collaboration between Purdue and Microsoft.

“Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on this planet to achieve more,” Chandra added.

The College of Agriculture currently collaborates with Microsoft on several other products, including designing a dashboard that calculates the potential risk to the food supply due to COVID-19.

Karen Plaut, the Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture, said this nascent collaboration with Microsoft amplifies the college’s work while also channeling its research to solving pressing issues from the local to global.

“Our college’s passion and innovation is echoed in Microsoft’s commitment to advancing agriculture and empowering individuals,” Plaut said. “Pairing the work of our faculty with Microsoft’s technical know-how and efficiency helps us bring our world-class agricultural research and expertise to exciting, new audiences.”

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