PALO ALTO -- It was a vegetarian Luddite's worst nightmare.
Lots of meat. Lots of technology. And 200 carnivorous computer geeks squeezed all weekend into a small building on the Stanford University campus.
"Hack//Meat Silicon Valley," advertised as a way for "leading technologists, entrepreneurs and sustainable food insiders to 're-imagine the future of meat,'"went like this: Sponsors issue a set of challenges to come up with ways to advance sustainable ranching and hackers hack the heck out of it.
"Our goal is to level the playing field between big and small food," said organizer Danielle Gould. The founder and CEO of New York-based media and research company Food+Tech Connect was using insider lingo for the contrast between huge meat producers like Cargill and small sustainable producers trying to bring healthy environmental practices and more transparency to the industry. "There has never been more interest in sustainable meat production, but the challenges of scaling it to the population are huge. We think technology can bring the same efficiency and cost-effectiveness to small food as it has to big food."
Big helps small
Starting Friday night, a group of 200 code-warriors, cowboy-hatted ranchers, food gurus and business consultants went hog-wild to come up with software, hardware, apps and services to answer questions like: "How can the next generation of farmers meet growing demand for sustainably-produced meat?"
The 20 teams responding to six challengers from event sponsors such as organic meat producer Applegate Farms were asked to collaborate on a project, then make a three-minute pitch to judges Sunday evening. The winners would receive prizes of cash and in-kind services that event spokeswoman Mariana Cotlear said were worth more than $125,000.
Sunday morning, Pescadero sustainable rancher Kevin Watt, 27, huddled with his team members¿ to fine tune a new service they call FarmStack. Here's the way he described the issue they faced: "It's a challenge for new farmers to find land. It's expensive, hard to come by, there's no central listing service and old-timers tend to hold on to their land and distrust newcomers."
FarmStack, he said, could help. "Our model could be a great way for small ranchers to share underutilized capacity on other people's farms so they wouldn't have to go out and buy land of their own. That means you could start a ranching business for $20,000 instead of having to come up with $200,000."
His colleague Amy Bao, of San Mateo, described FarmStack as a sort of Match.com for sustainable farmers, or "eFarmony" for short. She said the website could help vet organic producers through a certification process and then pair them with others whose farming or ranching methods would be mutually beneficial. A pig farmer, for instance, could share land with a vegetable producer, so the animals could eat the feed scraps while helping fertilize the soil.
"We're like an incubator," said Watt. "Our service would help shepherd organic farmers through the process of creating a sustainable business model and we'd essentially create a common database of reliable farmers."
The result, said the team members: more small sustainable producers in business, more environmentally conscious use of the land and more organic meat for a growing number of American consumers who want to know exactly where their food is coming from.
It's that same desire for transparency that motivated several of the teams at the meat hackathon. Krithika Yetchina, a 13-year-old San Jose resident who taught herself online how to write computer code, was one of nine people on MeatCave, a team that came up with a mobile app she said "provides transparency between meat processors and consumers."
For a kid too young to drive a car, Yetchina already knew more about "meat cut sheets" than most people will learn in a lifetime. The forms, which are used to order a specific package of cuts when someone buys meat in bulk, can be downright indecipherable to all but the rancher-and-butcher world's cognoscenti.
"This app is targeted to newer consumers who want to buy their own meat, instead of from a grocery store where the meat probably doesn't come from a local producer and where the consumer knows little or nothing about where the meat came from,"she said.
Taking shape on Yetchina's laptop screen Sunday morning, the app would offer users a way to find a sustainable producer, choose among three different packages of cuts and only have to buy a small portion of meat because other users would share in the purchase.
As Yetchina put it, "It's like crowd-sourcing the purchase of an entire steer."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.